Blog Archive

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

#MeetThePhD 4: Sam Rowe; Shining Light on Bacterial Chemical Production


The idea behind this 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:
Today we have Sam Rowe, using bacteria to tackle the fuel crisis in his PhD! Tweets to @samfrowe (or @friendlybugblog if you want me)

Tell me about yourself.

My name’s Sam Rowe and I’m a 4th year PhD student at the University of East Anglia. I grew up just outside Norwich, went away to London for my MSci degree then came back closer to home for my PhD. I’m based in the School of Chemistry (and will always be a chemist at heart) but have spent the majority of my project working with bacteria and proteins. Away from lab I spend my time learning the piano, going to the cinema and reading as many books as I can. I’m also lucky to be part of a really social research group so get to try out all the pubs and restaurants which Norwich has to offer during our lab outings J You can find me tweeting about life and science @samfrowe.

What's your project all about?

In my PhD I’m developing new ways to turn sunlight into chemicals and fuels using bacteria. I work with a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 (which is a bit of a mouthful!). It’s also known as an electric bacterium and there’s a great introduction to these microbes here: I grow the bacteria in the lab, mix them with light-absorbing chemicals then shine a light on them to see if they make the products we want.  
The project stems from the fact that fossil reserves (like coal and oil) will eventually run out so we want to harness the near-infinite supply of energy from the sun. My favourite fact is that the sun provides the Earth with as much energy every hour as human civilisation uses over an entire year! So we know there’s a lot of energy available but the challenge is to capture it and turn it into something useful.

How's that working out so far?

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my PhD and can’t believe that I’m now in my final year! At the start of January, I decided to stop experiments and begin writing up (which has been really nice). What stresses me out the most is not knowing whether I have enough data so it’s been great to stand back and look over what I’ve done over the past 3 years. Luckily my results are coming together to give a semi-coherent story. The plan is to complete a full thesis draft by the end of April, perform a few more experiments in May and June then review and finalise everything I’ve written to submit by July or August.

What are the three best things about your PhD so far?

1. I love the flexibility. As long as I’m getting work done, my supervisor is happy for me to take holiday when I want, attend conferences (I recently got the chance to present a poster in Rome!) and get involved with volunteering and outreach.
2.  Last year I was lucky enough to get an award for a talk I did about my research (during our annual research colloquium). I’m always nervous before presentations so it was great to know that I can communicate my science clearly.
3. My PhD is part of a Doctoral Training Partnership meaning that I was able to do a 3-month internship at the end of my 2nd year. My placement was with a forensics company in Cambridge and it really helped me understand the wider benefits of a PhD in terms of transferable skills and career prospects.

And the three worst things?

1. I found things difficult in my 1st year because I had never worked with bacteria before (so spent most of my time making silly mistakes). Everyone in lab was really helpful and patient with me though so I got to grips with things eventually.
2. It’s never nice when pieces of equipment break especially if it could have been prevented. I spent ages (about 6 months overall!) getting a gas chromatograph fixed after it had been repeatedly mistreated by other students. Fortunately, I had other experiments to do in the meantime but it still felt like such a waste of time and energy.
3. It’s always hard to deal with failed experiments and it’s particularly annoying when the experiment has worked before. It’s important to realise that not everything will work perfectly first time (and even if it does, you’ll probably have to repeat it to convince everyone that it wasn’t a fluke).

If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be? Why?

I worked loads of weekends in the first 2 years of my PhD to get results as quickly as possible. I was lucky and the hard work paid off meaning the end of my PhD has been relatively relaxed. However, I wish I had taken it easier when I started and spread my work out evenly over the 4 years to achieve a more sensible work-life balance. I also should have done more volunteering and outreach (and made a Twitter account!) earlier on because I really enjoy it and it’s such an important complement to the lab work.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing a PhD?

Take some time to research the PhD you’re applying for and bear in mind that the length of funding, the wider training on offer and the internship opportunities vary from place to place. If possible, arrange a meeting with your potential supervisor and ask as much as you can about typical working hours, the different lab techniques you’ll be expected to master, frequency of one-to-one meetings and lab space. Speaking with other students in the group will also give you an excellent idea about what life would be like working there. I definitely recommend doing a PhD if you find a subject you’re passionate about and a research group you feel comfortable in.

What's the plan after you finish?

A tough question but something I need to think about before my funding runs out! The truthful answer is that I really don’t know. I love science but I’m not particularly bothered about working in a lab. I need to decide whether another few years as a postdoc is a worthwhile compromise to then try launching my own research group and/or becoming a lecturer (although there’s no guarantee this will happen based on how competitive these positions are). Otherwise I’ll be looking for jobs in industry, science communication or government.

Any further thoughts/comments?

I think it’s great that you use your blog to write about the importance of mental wellbeing. During a PhD it’s so easy to focus on getting results and forget about looking after ourselves. Hopefully the more transparent we are about these issues, and the more we lobby for change, the better universities will be at supporting us within academia!
Also, thanks for the chance to chat about my PhD J

 Great! Thanks, Sam, and good luck with the rest of your PhD and beyond!

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