- Course: PhD in molecular and cellular biology
- PhD title: The role of host-cell potassium (K+) ion channels in Bunyavirus infection
About your course
Why did you choose to come to Leeds University to study the above course?
I have been at the University of Leeds for a number of years now. I initially carried out a Biological Sciences undergraduate course here and fell in love with the city and the University. When I first visited the University on an open day, I initially liked the mix of old and new buildings on the campus and then when I talked to the staff and students it was obvious that they really enjoyed being here and highly recommended it as a place to study. I really like how the campus is all together and not spread out across the city, so everything is easily accessible and in one place. So much has changed in the time I have been here, with new buildings and current refurbishments. It’s obvious that they have put a lot of time and money into improving the campus for students. It is also great having the city so close and not too big so that everything is easily accessible, but at the end of the day you are in a city and there are always things going on.
After completing my undergraduate course, I was not completely sure I wanted to commit to a 3-4 year PhD course and take my career down that route. I talked to my undergraduate project supervisor and he helped me decide to undertake a Masters by Research (MRes) degree at Leeds, in his lab. This gave me a year’s worth of research lab experience, which was key to developing my lab skills and my decision to undertake a PhD. I still loved being at the University and was excited by the research. Leeds was an easy choice!
What did you enjoy about your course?
At the start, one of the best parts for me was being in the lab and carrying out my own experiments full time. Lectures were fine during undergrad, but I have progressed beyond that and love being hands on, so working in the lab was ideal. I enjoy being independent and not relying on anyone else to carry out my research. My supervisor and I plan experiments and then it is up to me to organise my time and resources. Now I am in my final year of my PhD I plan my own experiments and lead the project in a direction that I want, which is great for me to see how I have improved my scientific knowledge and my confidence over the past 3 years.
Attending conferences and publishing my work have to be among the best bits. Every time I publish my research in a journal, I get a little thrill from it and it’s something you can show your family and friends outside of research that they will appreciate. I even made a diagram to represent one of my papers in graphical format, which then got accepted and used as the cover of Journal of Biological Chemistry! Presenting your work in front of tens to hundreds of people at conferences is also pretty amazing… scary, but amazing. Going to conferences I have been able to travel across the country, and sometimes abroad, to see what others are researching and how that can help me in my research. Meeting new people is great and has helped me develop friends and contacts, which will be useful in helping me get a job after my PhD. The University is really keen on sending their PhD students to conferences and if your supervisor or your funding body can’t afford to send you there are often ways to get funding which they can help you with.
The social side is also pretty great. As a lab we have a Christmas meal every year, alongside other events; including our lab retreat to Selside in the Yorkshire Dales where all presented summaries of our work and then had a BBQ with a campfire and marshmallows! I also like to be involved in things outside the lab, like being part of the Astbury Society organising social events and helping with science outreach and engagement events such as Pint of Science – talking about current and exciting research at Leeds with the public over a pint.
What have been the highlights of the course?
Attending and presenting a poster at the Biophysical Society annual conference in San Francisco was pretty awesome. The big conferences in America tend to accommodate thousands of people and this was no exception. It was great to share my work with so many new people from my area of research, that I would not otherwise have easily networked with here in the UK.
On a similar note, I was an invited speaker at the 2017 Glasgow Virology Workshop and being approached by someone I had not met previously to present my recently published work was an amazing feeling.
What was your greatest challenge throughout your course?
I think the hardest part in a way is time management and prioritising. There is always going to be an endless list of experiments that you could do and would be great to know the result. Especially if you are like me and want to do everything yourself, it was hard for me to take a step back and plan what is essential and what can wait (or be done by someone else). Your supervisor is very passionate about the subject and can help you with this. In an ideal world with endless time they would like you to get everything done, but at the end of the day it isn’t always possible and it is up to you to decide what you can achieve and what is best for your thesis – for telling your story, not just about the publications.
What is your research project on and what has it involved?
I am studying the role of host-cell potassium (K+) ion channels in Bunyavirus infection.
Bunyaviruses are a large group of viruses (>350 different species) capable of infecting animals, plants or humans, some of which lead to devastating and often fatal disease. Importantly there is no licensed treatment or vaccine for these viruses and therefore the need for an effective treatment is critical. This is where I come in…
Viruses require host cells for virion multiplication and we are trying to identify host targets which we can drug treat to prevent virus infection. We previously identified that inhibition of host-cell K+ channels prevents Bunyavirus infection and I am researching why they are required by the virus and which specific K+ channel it is – there are over 300 different K+ channels. To identify the channel required, I have been using a panel of K+ channel inhibiting drugs with a range of different channel targets to rule in or out different channel groups. I have used this method to narrow down this large list of potential channels to 4 candidate K+ channels. I plan to use siRNA to specifically prevent protein expression and hence channel function, of each of these 4 in turn to determine specifically which is essential for bunyavirus infection; hopefully identifying it as an antiviral target.
My main part of my project however is to identify the mechanism behind why this host factor is essential for virus infection. Using a range of microbiological techniques including cell culture, western blotting and confocal microscopy, I determined that K+ channels were required for virions to penetrate host cells. Specifically, the K+ ion concentration itself is vital for structural changes in the virion required for host cell entry. As viruses are so small (about 1000x smaller that the width of a single hair), I am now having to use a technique called electron microscopy to image these tiny virions and actually see what K+ is doing to the virus and hopefully elucidate why it is so important.
How do you think doing a research project has benefited/will benefit you in the future?
Throughout my PhD I have been able to learn such a wide range of techniques, which will undoubtedly make me more employable. Being in the lab full time and presenting at conferences has allowed me to gain a lot of experience and confidence, making me a better researcher. It is always great when you have developed so far that you can see the changes in yourself and how far you have come along – from that shy girl doing her undergrad lab project and avoiding talking to people, to the final year PhD student who is capable and confident in a research environment.
How would you rate the facilities available to you throughout your project? How have these enhanced your experience?
The University is and should be proud of the equipment available and the staff who manage it. I have been able to learn so many different techniques, including confocal microscopy and electron tomography, which have allowed me to progress my work much farther than it otherwise would have been. The availability of the confocal microscopes at Leeds allowed me to carry out experiments to visualise fluorescently-labelled viruses and track them in live cells; which led to essential data being obtained and published in PLOS Pathogens! Since then I have needed to specifically look at virion structure in order to advance my project, requiring electron microscopy (EM). The staff in the EM facility have been incredibly helpful, they know their stuff and are always available and keen to help you out where they can; which for a novice like me, was highly valuable. We are so lucky here to have 2 KRIOS EM microscopes, which has allowed me to be more hands on with the EM and do the experiments myself, rather than sending them off to a company for someone else to do. All in all, the University has such a wide range of equipment and facilities available and I have barely touched the surface, despite being in my final year.
About the University
Have you joined any student societies/sports clubs at the university? If so, how has this enhanced your time at the University?
During my undergrad and master’s projects I experimented with a few different societies, from FoBSoc (the faculty of biological sciences society) to surfing and skydiving. That is what’s great about having so many different societies, you can try different ones and see what you enjoy doing. It’s great to meet new people and make new friends outside of your course and your housemates, and there are always events going on so you are never bored of things to do.
Now during my PhD, I am only a part of the Postgraduate Astbury Society and I am on the committee, helping to organise and run events. I am quite an organised person and I enjoy doing this kind of stuff, from baking for a charity bake sale, to running our annual Astbury Ball. It’s always great fun and a great way to meet new people from across multiple disciplines that I would otherwise not have met. We also have our team of Postgraduate Reps which help organise events to bring people together from across faculties. Christmas quizzes and cheese & wine nights are a great way to get people together, relax and have some fun!
What key aspects of your experience of Leeds would you highlight to students thinking about coming do the same course?
First off, if you’ve been to an open day or are currently at one, you will have heard someone talk to you about the research-led teaching at Leeds and what a great thing it is. Well, to be honest… it is! At Leeds you realise very quickly that the lecturers care about what they are teaching you. Research-led teaching, means that they are teaching you about what they are currently researching and they are keen and enthusiastic about it, because that’s what they work on every day. Then when you become a part of that during you research project it becomes even clearer and you may even see your supervisor teaching other students about your work!
In regards to carrying out a research project here, as a student I am lucky to have so many different facilities available to me and so much help and support from members of staff. The University invests millions of pounds in its research labs and facilities, which is clear as there is always work going on across the faculty. This shows that the University cares about and is constantly improving constantly improving its resources, which is vital for us researchers if we ever hope to succeed in this competitive environment.
What are your ambitions for the future?
My ambition is to stay in the lab and in research. I love designing experiments and carrying them out to achieve different results, especially if something is particularly technical and detailed. I want to carry this on in my future career where I will continue to study viruses, hopefully being a postdoctoral researcher for a while and, you never know… I could eventually run my own lab!