Katie Walwyn-Brown is a second year PhD student in Dan Davis’ lab at the University of Manchester. She is studying how the white blood cells of your immune system communicate to keep you healthy. Katie also enjoys getting people excited about science: taking part in public engagement events, trying her hand at science based stand-up comedy and writing about immunology on her blog. Here she talks about why the immune system is so exciting to study and the importance of having fun exploring the unknown. Catch Katie on her Soapbox on 23rd July in Manchester to learn how your immune system tells the good from the bad.
SS: Katie, how did you get to your current position?
KWB: As an undergraduate I studied Biochemistry at the University of York. During my degree in I took the opportunity to spend a year in industry, researching antibody therapies at a pharmaceutical company. As well as enjoying being part of a team solving scientific problems, I found a fascination with how the immune system works in health and disease. When I returned to York I started a final year project working on immune cells and started looking for PhD places to continue exploring this area. My current supervisor visited from Manchester to give a seminar. He spoke about using cutting edge imaging technology to learn more about how immune cells work. I was inspired and applied for a PhD position in his lab, and here I am today in the second year of my PhD!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
KWB: I have always been a bit of an all-rounder. I enjoy thinking creatively and making new discoveries, whether that’s in music, languages, history or science. Towards the end of school I started thinking about career options; I spoke to my science teachers visiting biology researchers. I saw that they used their creativity to learn new things every day, making discoveries that could improve people’s lives. I decided that was what I wanted to do too.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
KWB: Studying the immune system is exciting because it is linked to so many aspects of our health and who we are: from fighting off disease, to a successful pregnancy, to the genes that set us apart from one another. My research allows me to see how the immune system works at a level of detail that no one else has seen before, and that is fascinating for me.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
KWB: I enjoy talking to people of all ages and backgrounds about my work and seeing them get excited about science. I’ve also been lucky throughout my career so far to have fantastic female scientific role models, and I want to make sure the next generation of potential scientists has the same opportunity.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
KWB: I’d like us to remember to have fun doing ‘blue sky’ research. Especially with funding becoming more limited, I think there’s a growing feeling that research has to be leading directly to a new medicine or technology, solving a problem. While this is definitely important, I think it’s also important to try to answer questions just because they are exciting unknown territory. Even if we don’t have an application for that knowledge right now, those breakthroughs could lead us to completely unexpected benefits in the future.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
KWB: I’m still a PhD student myself, but I have found one of the most important skills to move forward is confidence. You need to have the courage to stand up for your ideas, and also to ask for help and consider yourself worth other people’s time. Also to say yes to opportunities that come your way, you might learn something new and could find yourself sharing your science from a Soapbox!