Research the Researcher

Welcome to the first instalment of our new 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!

A 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.

A 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 Charlotte who’s going to answer some questions about her journey into the world of postgraduate study.

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello! I’m Charlotte, a Cancer Research UK-funded PhD student with Manchester Cancer Research Centre and a Widening Participation Fellow at The University of Manchester. My research focuses on programmed cell death in breast cancer cells with the aim of figuring out which proteins interact with one another to cause cells to die.

Where are you from?

Oldham, Manchester.

What school and/or college did you go to?

I went to The Blue Coat School in Oldham for both secondary school and sixth form. It was when I was in sixth form that the Manchester Access Programme (MAP) came to give a talk about the scheme to us. I applied and got onto the programme and it was genuinely one of the greatest things to ever happen to me! Before MAP, I had no real idea about applying and going to university as none of my immediate family had ever been. MAP helped me to understand what applying to uni involved and also gave me an insight into what it’s like to be a student. We had to go onto campus and do various workshops and I also did an academic assignment with a PhD student as my supervisor. It was an invaluable experience and really helped to set me up for uni life.

Did the Manchester Access Programme help you to make a decision about going to university?

One of the things I am most grateful to MAP for is encouraging me to explore my options in depth. I’d never heard of Medical Biochemistry before but when I started looking into courses, I realised that not only was it a degree that you could do, it was the perfect degree for me. After that, I worked as hard as I possibly could to apply and be accepted onto the Medical Biochemistry degree programme at The University of Manchester. I managed it – four years later and I’ve graduated with a first class MSci Medical Biochemistry degree which I’m absolutely thrilled about!

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

I had a couple of teachers at school who had PhDs but the only real thing I knew about them was that they’d done some sort of degree which led to them being able to call themselves ‘Dr’ – beyond that I was a bit clueless! It was only when I got to uni that I began to understand that a PhD is a postgraduate research degree where you have to contribute some meaningful new knowledge to the world and prove that you have the skills and competency to be an academic researcher and so called ‘Dr’. It wasn’t something I properly considered doing until my personal advisor encouraged me to try and get some research experience during the summer holidays after my second year of university. I’d been chatting to him about career options and whilst I knew I was really interested in medical science, I wasn’t sure if lab work was for me. Based on his advice, I applied for some summer research placements and was lucky enough to get one funded by the Medical Research Council. I absolutely loved it and (second to MAP) it’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done with regards to furthering my higher education journey. After that, I was really excited to do my Master’s project. I was still nervous about applying for a PhD as it seemed so far-fetched. A degree was something very few people in my family have – a PhD was definitely a first! But with the help of my personal advisor, other tutors and the careers service at uni, I decided to apply to some PhD programmes and was delighted when I was offered the one I most wanted!

Describe your PhD.

My PhD will involve me trying to discover which proteins interact with one another on the surface of the mitochondria in order to cause cells to die.

Why is your research important?

This is important because it may be able to help doctors to understand which chemotherapy drugs to use for which patients. The fact that researchers are essentially detectives using the information available to investigate new things is really exciting to me. It also has the potential to benefit other people, which I find really rewarding.

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

If I had to give any advice to my sixteen-year-old self it would be to do my research and to choose what was best for me. Because university was a new concept in my eyes, it would have been easy for me to just do what other people said I should do. But if I’d done that, I’d probably never have got on MAP and I wouldn’t have studied Medical Biochemistry at The University of Manchester. By doing my research and applying for things that excited me, I’ve had an incredible four years at university and am now doing my dream PhD where I can contribute to the global effort to try and combat cancer. If I’d have told my sixteen-year-old self that’s what I’d be doing in the future, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it has happened to me. And it can happen to you too. If you’re considering uni, please do consider applying to a scheme like MAP. It really did change my life.