Myfanwy Hill started on her PhD in June. She says she is beginning to feel as though she knows what she is doing ... at least some of the time
- British Veterinary Association
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AS students we were regularly told that vets made great scientists, that we came with a huge range of highly desirable and applicable skills, but the fact of the matter is that most of us don't know one end of a Western blot from the other. This is where, to a certain extent, summer research projects and intercalated degrees come in useful, as they can allow you to learn a few practical techniques. However, as I have discovered, there is a lot more to successful bench work than being able to hold a pipette.
During the opening months of my PhD I think I have spent more time with my nose buried in my first year biochemistry notes than I did during six years of undergraduate study. On a daily basis I come across processes and techniques that were touched on during undergraduate training. This is, on one hand, reassuring – I usually have some knowledge of the principles at work, but is equally very humbling, as I am constantly reminded of how much I don't know.
My area of interest is in the biology of regenerative processes in the central nervous system, and in particular how these processes can be imaged or visualised. During my summer research projects, intercalated degree, and clinical research I learnt a few basic techniques – how to design primers and perform a PCR, how to do a Western blot, and, in theory, how to do some statistical analysis. My competence in these tasks, it transpires, was similar to that of someone painstakingly following a recipe to bake a cake. The level of competence I actually require is more analogous to Mary Berry fashioning a meringue and Genoise sponge palace without so much as a moment's hesitation. This was a terrifying realisation.
Myfanwy's first article on embarking on a PhD was published in Vet Record Careers in June, (VR, June 13, 2015, vol 176, pp i-ii doi:10.1136/vr.h3171)
Thankfully, a PhD is training position, and I am surrounded by incredible colleagues who are helping me to learn the techniques I need to answer the questions I have. I spend much more of my time in science sitting in a classroom on courses than I had expected to. I guess it's just like CPD really. I'm slowly getting to grips with the microscopes and I no longer automatically assume that something failed because I got it wrong (although this is still frequently the case). I recently managed to plan, execute and analyse an experiment without any major errors and largely unassisted. This was something I thought I would be doing from day 1. It has taken so long partly because of the extraordinary number of forms one needs to fill out before undertaking any work (I am now well versed in writing risk assessments), but it was a sweeter achievement as a result.
A PhD, like the day-to-day work of being a vet, is a blend of practical tasks alongside application of scientific knowledge and understanding. Similarly, manual tasks like performing routine surgeries can at first seem hugely challenging, stressful and complicated, but gradually they become routine as one acquires familiarity. The same is true of basic bench work. My once blind fumblings in tissue culture are gradually being transformed into something resembling competence, and I no longer break out in a cold sweat at the thought of preparing my own reagents. But every new experiment brings with it a new technique and, as in clinical practice, there is always something new to learn. I think I now realise that the things that make vets good scientists are not necessarily tangible skills or pieces of knowledge; it's more to do with adaptability – a training that promotes integration of manual skills with science and an approach to problem solving.
One of the things I have most enjoyed about science is talking to people about what I do – scientists and non-scientists alike. Public engagement is something that comes naturally to vets – all of our patients come with at least one human attached to them. Science offers an amazing array of opportunities to share knowledge with colleagues: poster presentations, conferences, blogs, forums, formal and informal awards – and, of course, coffee breaks. But engaging with the public is always a bigger challenge. Some of what we do is complicated and nuanced, and sometimes we're just not very good at simplifying it.
I was recently involved in the ‘Pint of Science’ project, which takes scientists into the pub to share their research in an informal setting, and encourages us to make it accessible to the general public. I was struck by how similar it was to the client meetings that I had seen given in practice. My PhD is in neuroscience, and I was involved in talks within this field. We discussed epilepsy, artificial intelligence, and cognition studies, and this was married to pieces of art by local artists inspired by the work of the scientists who spoke. The audiences were inquisitive, engaged and hugely enthusiastic. It certainly reminded me of the importance of putting information out into the hands of the general public. I wonder if some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about science are really a result of our failure to engage rather than because of the inherent complexity of the issues at hand.
I think this applies to clinical work as well. I complain as much as many other clinicians about clients who would prefer to believe chat rooms over my or my colleagues' advice. Perhaps I need to work harder to put more information in to their hands.
While the challenges of clinical work, the stress, the long days and the demands of clients seem very distant when I'm standing at the laboratory bench, the fundamental challenges are similar. We all want to solve the problems put in front of us – be they feathered or furry, or the wrong colour tube. I think we all want to make the world a better place, even just a small bit of it – and much of the time, the biggest challenge is meeting the demands that we place on ourselves.