A day in the life of a stem cell PhD student

By Sophie Arthur, University of Southampton

18198559_1441941362530805_2290645670417887421_nFinishing your finals during undergrad is one of the most amazing feelings! The relief and complete lack of stress is a welcome release from being hunched over a desk for hours and days on end. But as you transition into graduand life and are awaiting that day you can wear that cap and gown, the same question keeps cropping up; ‘So, what are you going to do now?’

Now don’t panic! Finishing your undergrad does not automatically make you realise what you want to do for the rest of your life. In fact, I think most people have no idea about their next steps after graduating; and I was one of those people. Did I want to get a job in industry? Did I want to go into scientific writing? Or did I want to go into further study? No matter what your options, before you can decide on which path is the right one for you, you need to do you research! Eventually, I decided that I wanted to stay in scientific research and that I wanted to be a qualified as I could be, so I opted to embark on the PhD journey.

Going back a few years now, when I was trying to find out what life studying for a PhD involved, I searched and searched for anything about what day to day life as a PhD student was like, or even real life accounts of what opportunities there was for students, but alas my search proved very unsuccessful! So, I made it my personal mission to try and help fill that gap in the internet with my science blog and by writing posts like this about what a typical day is like for me as a third year PhD student working in a stem cell lab. So, let’s take a look behind those lab doors.

8am: Most people probably think that starting to study for a PhD means the boring and mundane Monday to Friday 9-5 routine, but in truth it couldn’t be more different! Yes, your hours are based on this schedule but in reality you could be working much longer days, much shorter days or even bank holidays and weekends sometimes. But basically, you can work when you want. Now this is fantastic news if you are not a morning person like me and can rock up at 10/11am if you want and no one will worry too much, or you could start at 7am and finish at 3pm if you are an early bird. This particular day consisted of the normal 8am struggle to get out of bed for me, the laboured efforts of making lunch and forcing to wake myself up before setting out on my morning commute!

9.30am: Most days I have usually made it to my desk by half past 9 and begun my normal routine of checking my emails and scanning through todays ‘to do’ list, fetching some ice to defrost any samples I need for today’s experiments and also popping any cell culture media in the water bath to slowly warm up and be ready for when I need it.

10am: Most of my work revolves around changing the conditions that my stem cells are cultured in and then analysing any effects on their protein expression, specifically three important stem cell proteins called OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG. So, today involves starting to look at the protein expression changes in a new batch of samples using a technique called Western blotting which takes two days from start to finish! This technique involves separating the proteins by size and using an antibody to visualise how much of my protein of interest is there. This will take me all day so I am getting that started as soon as possible and will fit all my other tasks for the day around it.

Western blotting in action

11.30am: First break from Western blotting and time to head back to my desk for an hour or so. Another quick check of my emails, before working on my first big conference presentation. Conferences are a great opportunity for scientists of any stage of their career to come together and share their research. Now unfortunately, I will not be speaking at a big international stem cell conference next week, but I will be speaking at my Faculty of Medicine conference. So, final slide edits and animations need to be checked before practicing with my supervisors later and submitting my presentation.

1pm: Lunchtime. My favourite time of day! Normally, I would meet up with some other PhD friends that are not in my lab for a chat and a catch up but today I have a lot to get through so I’ve grabbed a quick desk lunch instead whilst browsing Facebook and working on my next blog or Instagram post.

My desk and blog

1.30pm: Don’t worry! I haven’t forgotten about my Western blot! I have been doing the next step as and when required. But now it’s time to head to the cell culture labs. I work primarily with embryonic stem cells which in my opinion are the divas of the cell world as they need to be fed and dealt with every single day! That means those weekends and bank holidays that I mentioned at the beginning too! Luckily, my stem cell media, which provides them with all their nutrients, is already warm as I put it in the water bath this morning, so time to change the media on my 8 plates of stem cells growing at the moment where some are being treated with different drugs that will affect their metabolism so I can see if there are any effects on the stem cells’ expression of those key proteins; OCT4, SOX2 and NANOG.

My embryonic stem cells down the microscope

2.30pm: Time to meet with my supervisors! I only have two PhD supervisors which is quite a low number for a PhD. One is my main supervisor whose lab I work in, and my other supervisor primarily works in cancer but specialises in the particular proteins I am interested in. I regularly meet up with my supervisors to discuss any recent results, any issues with my progress in the lab or, like today, to practice talks. I have 12 minutes for my conference talk next week, so we spend the meeting timing my talk, realising I’m 2 minutes over, discussing what I can take out and then timing again until it is just right. I get on really well with my supervisors so the end of these meetings usually turns into a bit of a chat about our weekend plans, or identifying the missing piece of the puzzle in my next section of research and designing experiments to solve those gaps, or even a big debate about what all my results could mean in the big science world! But I do love these meetings because every single time it makes me thing about something else related to my research or another question I could ask so it is really stimulating!

4pm: Okay – so the meeting over ran a little, but to be honest they always do! After popping back into the lab to finish the last steps of the day in there, it is time to head back to my desk for some lab admin! I think it is really important to keep a detailed record of everything you do in the lab in your lab book and to make sure I don’t forget anything I did or tried differently this time, I try to always make sure my lab book is written up at the end of every day before I head home.

5pm: Home time for most people, but not for me! The further you get through your PhD, the busier you become, the more opportunities you get and the more things you have to juggle. The big thing in academia is getting your research published and this is the stage I have finally managed to reach. Everything that I have discovered over the past 2 and a half years needs to be written up in the form of a scientific paper to be submitted for publication. I am going back home for a few days after the conference next week so I want to be able to give my supervisor the draft of my manuscript before I have those few days off and to get the ball rolling with submissions as it could take months before it finally gets accepted! I find it much easier to focus on writing when I am sat at my desk in the office so I put my headphones on, turn up the music and get stuck into writing this draft before I head home.

7pm: Time to leave! After a quick check of the lab that everything electrical that should be turned off is off, my bag is packed up and I head off home. When I’m not so busy, I usually head to the gym to let off some steam but with everything I need to juggle at work at the moment I’ve taken two weeks off from the gym. Instead I just need to find the will power to cook and do house work instead.

7.30pm: Home. Food cooking. But my computer is back on and I’m writing again. Not the paper but this time for any guest articles and blog posts I need to do. I still am unsure of what I want to do after finishing my PhD so I want to keep my options open and get involved with as many scicomm opportunities as I can physically and mentally manage and practice and refine my writing skills and more. And this is the time I find for that before binging on some crappy British TV and starting all over again tomorrow.

A PhD can become a bit of a juggling act but you can used to managing all the things you want to do and prioritising those tasks. This is a typical day for me but the joy of doing a PhD is that no two days are ever the same. I will always have more writing and Western blots to do and cells to look after, but the papers and talks will come and go and there will be new opportunities and techniques that I will learn along the way. But ultimately, a PhD is whatever you make it. You get given your project at the beginning of your journey but in the end you decide what missing pieces of the puzzle to pursue and you control what you achieve each day. Does that sound like something for you?

About me:

I am a PhD student in stem cell metabolism at the University of Southampton, where I am looking at the mechanisms behind how metabolism supports a pluripotent stem cell state. Although I love being in the lab, I also love to share insights about grad school life and science in general through writing guest blogs and on my own science blog, and also through my social media channels such as Instagram and Twitter.

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