PhD student Michaela Agapiou working in a lab.

Michaela Agapiou

What research are you undertaking?

I am looking at how an RNA binding protein, called held out wings (HOW), affects mRNA translation in the testes of fruit flies.

What is the purpose of your research?

Translation is a key point of regulation in gene expression. This is especially true in the testis – of both mammals and insects. We want to understand how RNA binding proteins, such as held out wings, can affect this regulation to determine what proteins are made in the cells during spermatogenesis.

How will this apply to real world applications?

Held out wings is part of the STAR family of proteins. The orthologue of HOW in humans is called quaking. Quaking is found in neurons and testes in humans but has mostly been studied in neurological diseases, such as schizophrenia. However, its role in the testes has not yet been studied. The fruit fly testis provides a great model for looking at how RNA binding proteins can affect translation in general, as well as how this STAR family of proteins might be involved in fertility.

What facilities and specialist equipment do you use to help you carry out your research?

For the flies, we need to keep them in a constant temperature room at 25°C and 50% humidity. I have also worked with a number of the excellent facilities at the University: the protein production facility, the sequencing facility (based in St James’s Hospital), the electron microscopy facility (both cryo and normal EM) and the bio-imaging facility. Hopefully, I will soon be using the X-ray crystallography facility too!

What do you particularly enjoy about your research?

I love the wide range of experiments I have undertaken as part of my project; each week can be really diverse. For example, I am currently working on fly mating experiments to study sperm competition, processing next generation sequencing data that requires a fair amount of computing power, and optimising recombinant expression of my protein in bacteria for structural biology work. All these different elements mean that I use a number of the University’s facilities and I get to work with a lot of different people, which I love.

Why did you choose to undertake a PhD?

I chose this PhD because I wanted to do a project that included 'omics experiments, which would require both computational skills and traditional wet lab skills. I was really impressed with the LeedsOmics community that my supervisor, Julie Aspden, had begun with others at the University. Alongside the structural biology facilities, the University seemed to have a great environment for the work I was interested in and for this project to be carried out.

Who is your supervisor? How have they helped you with your research so far?

My main supervisor is Julie Aspden and I am co-supervised by Amanda Bretman and Thomas Edwards. They have different areas of expertise and are based in different departments in the Faculty, thus they provide a wealth of knowledge. For example, Julie has worked in the field of translation for many years and is an expert on Ribo-seq, which she is now helping me develop for fly testes.

What are your plans after you complete your PhD?

My current plan is to do a postdoc and continue with RNA-related scientific research.

About the University

Why did you choose the University of Leeds?

Firstly, I really liked my supervisor, Julie Aspden, who had just started her group at the University of Leeds when I was looking for PhD projects. The University also had fantastic resources necessary for the project (eg the sequencing facility and the structural biology facilities) and a friendly atmosphere.

What have been the highlights of your time at the University of Leeds?

Receiving my first next generation sequencing data was particularly exciting, as this was something I had learnt about in my undergraduate degree and had wanted to do for a long time. Solving the structure of the fly testis ribosome was a significant achievement and has been a fun, unexpected side project to my main PhD project. Finally, trying out some new hobbies (climbing and swing dance) with societies at the University has been great fun.

Do you have specific career plans? Has the University helped you with these goals in any way?

My ambitions are to continue within scientific research. I have enjoyed some of the talks and discussion panels that have been put on by the University about academic career paths, this has strengthened my desire to continue along this career path. During my PhD I have been one of the PhD Athena SWAN representatives, and I would definitely like to continue being involved in equality and inclusion work throughout my career.