Research the Researcher: Jack Sharpen

Welcome to the second instalment of our series, Research the Researcher, where we ask current PhD students and Widening Participation Fellows about their journey into postgraduate research. But let’s slow down a little – first we need to establish what these terms actually mean!

PhD is a degree qualification awarded to people who have done advanced research into a particular subject. PhD is short for Doctor of Philosophy but don’t let that fool you, you can get a PhD in lots of different disciplines (not just Philosophy!). It normally takes someone around three to five years to complete their PhD, and once finished they can officially be referred to as Doctor. A PhD falls under the more broad category of postgraduate study, and refers to the research someone chooses to undertake after completing their first degree. The first degree someone completes is usually a Bachelor’s degree and falls under the category of undergraduate study.

Widening Participation Fellow at The University of Manchester refers to a student currently studying for their PhD, who develops and delivers activities to inspire and engage school and college students from across Greater Manchester.

So now you know a few of the key terms to do with university-level research, we’ll hand over to our second Researcher of the series, Jack, who’s going to answer some questions about his journey into the world of postgraduate study.

Who are you?

Hey I’m Jack, a fellow PhD student at Manchester. Outside of university life I’m mad about music, running around the great outdoors and screaming at rugby, both as a fan and as a referee.

What do you do?

At university, I am part of the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, and my PhD research is looking at the molecular biology of mummies and mummified tissues.

I’m also a big advocate for outreach and science communication programmes. This includes being a Widening Participation Fellow, a sub-editor for the student-led blog Research Hive and a Brilliant Club tutor.

Where are you from and what school/college did you go to?

I come from Wallasey, the Wirral, from a working-class background, and went to The Mosslands School throughout secondary and sixth form. This was my local comprehensive that has great teachers, and where I became inspired to carry on with Biology, Chemistry and History.

Did you know what a PhD was before you started university? And how did you end up deciding to do one?

My knowledge of what PhDs were before university was that Indiana Jones had one! Until sixth form, I had a vague idea that it was something you did after graduating, but I thought it was really unattainable. After having the opportunity to go on access programmes provided by The Sutton Trust, I finally understood what defined a PhD but not what it meant as a career.

I’ve always been quite indecisive in choosing what I wanted to do and decided to study Biochemistry with a Placement Year at Manchester due to its amazing range of choices. I really enjoyed researching some topics and so arranged a placement at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. As part of a large research group, I spent the year carrying out novel laboratory work. Being part of cutting edge science and learning new things every day were the main reasons I decided to apply for a PhD, and, after a graduate position back in Sweden, I was then fortunate to be successful in coming back to Manchester to study a topic I loved.

Describe your PhD.

My PhD looks at the ancient biological molecules found in mummies, such as their DNA, proteins and fats. I am also looking at how the process of mummification really happened on a molecular level for the first time. This combines my love of history with biochemistry and current biological tools to shed light on mummies and their makeup.

Why is research important?

Scientific research is such a big deal because it provides new discoveries every day! This uncovers exciting new insights that advance and benefit our understanding of the world as we know it. This can be from the tiny particles that make up the foundation of the universe to finding out how the origin of man happened. Many Nobel Prize discoveries started with a hunch or an accident before being proven right with great research.

With my PhD topic, the area has already been applied to help better understand the evolution of human populations, tracking diseases through history and in forensic sciences.

What would you say to a sixteen-year-old from a similar background to you who’s thinking about going to university?

If I were to jump back in a time machine and to talk to sixteen-year-old me, I would first say that YOU CAN DO IT. Going out there, being enthusiastic and giving it your best effort is the best way to reap the rewards. It can seem like a bigger hurdle for you than for others but there are support networks in place that can be accessed. Applying to Manchester and finding out about the financial support available really helped me achieve my best potential.

The second thing I would say is, just go with your gut! It is important to listen to helpful and positive advice, but also to explore the options that interest you. If you really want to do something, it makes it much easier to have a focus in order to reach certain goals. It is also fine to change your mind – I always struggle with thinking I have to get things right first time. As with everything, there are lots of pathways available and it is okay not to get it right on the first go. After having changed my mind countless times (and failing at some A-Levels) I chose not to give up on going to the University of Manchester, which led to the best fours years I could have dreamed of as an undergraduate and now a dream PhD student.