Blog Archive

Monday, 12 December 2016

#MeetThePhD 3: Robert Millar: Using Bacteria to turn Bark into Bite

The idea behind meet the PhD is to showcase PhD students, give a bit of an idea of what’s going on out there in PhDland, and show to the world what PhD life is like! Perhaps they are thinking of doing a PhD themselves, or just generally want to know more about it. Or they’re already doing a PhD and want to see that they’re not alone in their struggles or successes!

While Friendly Bacteria is a vaguely microbiology-themed blog, for this series of mini-interviews I’m wanting any PhD student no matter the field! I think it will be a fun way to connect with other PhD students we wouldn’t normally be able to get to know, too.

If you’re a PhD student and want to get involved with this, leave a comment here, send me a DM on Twitter ( @friendlybugblog ) or shine the Bacteria-signal into the skies above Aberystwyth and I’ll send you the questions!

Previous ones are here:

This time, we've got Robert Millar, a fellow bacteria-jockey, but from Warwick!

1       Tell me about yourself
My name is Robert Millar (or @Science_Millar for the twitter users), and I’m in the first year of my PhD in Chemistry (which is actually all about bacteria, but don’t tell the other chemists that)! I come from Coventry in the Midlands, and I’m doing my PhD at the University of Warwick, just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. My PhD is actually part of a doctoral training partnership called MIBTP, which is a type of studentship that incorporates a year of training in the form of small research projects, classes, online courses, and an internship to help set the groundwork for the PhD, so it might be more fitting to say I’m a second year postgraduate student, first year PhD. When I’m not in the lab, I spend a lot of time doing martial arts, tai chi and qigong, and some underwater photography when I get the spare time (shameless plug: you can view and buy prints of my underwater shots at ).
(Those underwater shots are pretty sweet! - Gareth)

2       What’s your project all about?
As I mentioned, my PhD is in chemistry, but I work on bacteria. The University of Warwick’s chemistry department has a chemical biology research facility, where projects at the interface of the biology and chemistry live, so whilst I’m more towards the biological side, a lot of my lab has a strong chemistry background, which can be really useful for understanding some of the background mechanisms of what’s going on. The project itself focuses on a molecule in plants called lignin. Lignin is a polymer – a long chain molecule made up of individual subunits – that is responsible for making plants woody, it is very tough, durable, and rigid, which means it is very difficult to break down. Fortunately, bacteria are very good at breaking this compound down without completely destroying it, which Is useful because the individual subunits of lignin are actually complex chemicals which are difficult to obtain, and have a variety of different uses. My aim is to alter the way the bacteria break down lignin to increase the amounts of these high value chemicals being produced, meaning we would be able to get plastics, pharmaceuticals, food additives, and more from a renewable source (waste plant material such as the sludge left over from making paper) rather than relying on crude oil. It’s a very green project, which makes it easy for me to get excited about!

3       How’s it going so far?
So far it’s been slow going, I’ve been in the lab 5 months now but I have a long term illness that flares up from time to time. It can be really frustrating trying to do a long protocol when some days it’s impossible to work in the lab. That said, what I have managed to get done is working well. I have a great supervisor who’s really understanding, and there are some really talented people in the lab. Overall I’m really enjoying it.

4       What are the three best things about your PhD so far?
I think number one would have to be the people. Not just the people who I’ve met through MIBTP, who I’m sure will be with me well after the PhD, but the people in the lab as well make for a great research environment.
Second is a chance to research something I’m genuinely passionate about. The great thing about green science is it’s easy to see what the outcomes of your work might be, so every little edge forward you feel like you’re one step closer to making the planet just a little greener. I find that really fulfilling.
Third, the opportunities that have opened up since I started the PhD are great; going to conferences, travel abroad, seminars from top scientists, lots of things that wouldn’t have been available to me have opened up since I started the PhD just a few months ago.

And the three worst things?
When the experiment doesn’t work, that’s never fun. I don’t mind a negative result, but when the cells don’t even grow when you know that they should, that’s very frustrating. I spent weeks repeating incubations only to find out that the pH of one of the components in the media was wildly off from what it should have been.
A slightly embarrassing moment I had recently was ordering a rather expensive piece of lab equipment, only to realise once it arrived that it was the wrong model and wasn’t compatible with anything else in the lab. I managed to get a full refund from the supplier but it wasn’t a great impression after only being in the lab a couple of months!
As I mentioned above though, one of the most difficult things has been trying to manage having a long term illness and still trying to get a good amount of lab work done. It’s twice as hard when other people in the lab don’t quite understand or accept that I have a good reason for not making it into the lab sometimes.

5       If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be and why? 
Well I’m just starting out, so I’m sure if I were to revisit this questionnaire in three years’ time the answers would be completely different, (I’ll hold you to that! – Gareth) but right now I think the most prominent thing I’d do differently would be not to get so stressed when first starting out. I got really worked up when I first started my PhD year about all of the admin that needed taking care of. In hindsight, it wasn’t really all that bad and I got mostly worked up over nothing. At the end of the day, I have three years to make sure that’s all in order, I didn’t need to get it done all in the first month!

6       What advice would you give someone thinking about doing a PhD?
If you have a lab and a supervisor in mind, or a project you really want to do, then definitely do a PhD. It’s great being able to be more or less independent in my research (with supervisor’s approval of course!) and to be able to work on something that I’m genuinely interested in. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD just because you aren’t sure what to do next, then it probably isn’t for you. I know when I was an undergraduate I thought doing a PhD was basically a 9-5 job, and that you could just go home at the end of it and not have any essays or assignments to write like at undergraduate, but that really isn’t the case. There might not be homework, but there’s definitely a lot of work that you’ll be taking home with you. A PhD can be a huge source of stress in your life, so if you aren’t prepared to take that on, it probably isn’t worth looking at.

7       What’s the plan after you finish?
I really hate this question, because my answer has changed so many times. When I first started my PhD, it was on the advice of an alumnus of my undergraduate university who now operates a successful company in the DNA sequencing industry. He advised me that a PhD was a great springboard to go into an industry job, as an entry level job for someone with a PhD was years down the line for someone with just an undergraduate degree – “you’re saving years off of your life!” as he put it. I had been torn between looking for jobs in the industry and doing a PhD, so I saw this as an opportunity to do both: PhD now, then 3-4 years down the line I could be in industry. Lately I’m not so sure I want to carry on with research. Jobs in research are notoriously lacking in job security, so lately I’ve been thinking of branching out. As part of my doctoral training year, I did an internship in the media communications department of the Society for Applied Microbiology (@SfAMtweets), which involved writing a few blogs, some of which you can find at (another shameless plug, sorry!), which has got me thinking that maybe science journalism or some other SciComm role might be more suited to me. Either way, that’s three years away, so I have a decent amount of time to mull it over!
8       Any further thoughts/comments? 
I’m only a few months into the PhD, and it’s already been a whirlwind. I’m writing this as I wait nervously for the results of a month of work to come back, whilst trying to figure out where I should organise where we should go for our lab Christmas meal. It’s definitely been a mixed bag with a great bunch of people, but right now I don’t regret a moment of it.

(This is all Robert's unedited words. If you want to get in on this sweet sweet blog series action, shoot me a message and we'll sort something out! - Gareth)

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