Sioned Williams

Sioned Williams

Why did you choose to study Neuroscience at Leeds?

While studying for my A levels, I especially enjoyed biology and psychology and decided to apply for a degree in neuroscience. I was keen to obtain a master’s degree and chose the University of Leeds because it offered an undergraduate neuroscience programme that incorporated an integrated Masters year.

What were the highlights of the course?

I particularly enjoyed the practical elements of the course. During my first year, I appreciated the solid grounding we obtained in a wide variety of biomedical research methods. The opportunity to explore biochemical, anatomical and physiological research techniques was incredibly useful, helping me to refine the area of research I wanted to pursue for a career.

During my second year, it was great to be exposed to neuroscience-specific techniques, particularly the electrophysiology experiments we performed using in-vivo snail neurons.

In my final year, I found it extremely rewarding to design, perform and analyse a series of experiments based upon a literature review I had written the previous year. This gave me a brilliant insight into what a career in research would involve.

Please can you tell us more about your final year project/dissertation?

There is evidence to suggest that a signalling pathway known as canonical Wnt signalling is reduced within Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients. It is thought that this reduction in Wnt signalling may contribute to AD progression, possibly due to its role in regulating a transcriptional repressor called REST.

To test this hypothesis I designed, performed and analysed a series of experiments to manipulate canonical Wnt signalling and determine its effect on REST. To model the reduction in canonical Wnt signalling observed within AD patients, I exposed neuroblastoma cells to media conditioned with the Wnt antagonist DKK1, which I produced by transfecting HEK293 cells with a DKK1-encoding plasmid. I then utilised western blotting to determine the effect on intracellular signalling proteins. I also measured the activity of downstream transcription factors using luciferase reporter gene assays.

I really enjoyed learning new research techniques during this project and felt it gave me valuable insight into what a career as a scientist would entail.

What research did you carry out or work on whilst at Leeds?

In addition to the MBiol thesis project I completed during my final year, I also obtained a Laidlaw Research and Leadership Scholarship during my first year and undertook an industrial placement year at AstraZeneca during my third year.

As part of my Laidlaw scholarship, I completed an independent research project investigating the role of histone deacetylases in neurodegenerative microglia activation. I cultured several mammalian cell lines and utilised RT-qPCR to measure interleukin-6 expression. I also optimised a technique to monitor nitric oxide production, Griess assay, which was new to the laboratory.

Whilst at AstraZeneca, I worked in the Formulations Department and investigated the mechanisms by which therapeutic peptides aggregate to form amyloid fibrils. I learnt numerous new techniques, including Thioflavin T assays and FTIR. I loved completing these research projects and having the opportunity to work within industry opened my eyes to the potential of scientific research beyond academia.

What are you currently doing / what are your career aspirations?

I recently completed a research internship at the University of Alberta (Canada) where I used acridine orange and immunohistochemistry to assess mechanisms of cell death in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis. I found it interesting to undertake laboratory research outside of the UK and it was particularly insightful to learn about distinct funding avenues for scientific research in different countries.

I aim to pursue a career in scientific research, specifically focussed on the contribution of epigenetics to neurodegeneration. Towards this goal, I have obtained a research internship at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (Japan), where I will work alongside Professor Hidetoshi Saze to explore mechanisms underlying the trans-generational inheritance of epigenetic modifications.

In my career, I hope to conduct meaningful laboratory research and shape the direction of neuroscience research on a broader scale, ultimately providing clinical benefit for patients and their families.

You won the BNA ‘Undergraduate of the Year Award’ . What does winning this award mean to you?

I am ecstatic to have won this award! It is great recognition for the countless hours spent in the laboratory and library throughout my degree. The BNA is a brilliant organisation that provides fantastic opportunities for neuroscientists at every stage of their career and I feel privileged to have been acknowledged by the BNA with this award. I am also very grateful to my master’s supervisor, Dr Ian Wood, for nominating me. This award represents an exciting start to my career in neuroscience!

What would you say to a prospective student considering a degree in Neuroscience at Leeds?

The neuroscience programme at the University of Leeds is excellent, but I think Leeds really stands out because of all the extra opportunities offered alongside the students’ degree programme. The Laidlaw Research and Leadership Scholarships provide a fantastic opportunity for undergraduate students to conduct an independent research project several years before they would typically expect (i.e. during the first year as opposed to final year). Students on the scheme benefit from the direct supervision of a senior researcher and are able to attend numerous workshops focussed on developing leadership skills.

The University of Alberta Research Experience is another brilliant opportunity that allows students to conduct a three-month research project at a Canadian university. Within the UK, only students at the University of Leeds are eligible to apply because Leeds is the only UK-based partner university.

The Alumni Leadership Mentoring Programme is also a great opportunity available at the University of Leeds. Students are mentored by Leeds alumni working in a senior position within their field of interest, enabling those students to benefit from the experience and advice of that expert.

I think all of these additional opportunities make the University of Leeds stand out and I feel very fortunate to have benefited from such opportunities during my degree.