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CASE Studentship studies part one – Stephanie Heard

Copyright: Shandi on Flickr

PhD students tell their stories of industry and academic collaboration.

CASE Studentships are PhD training grants where students work with an industrial partner in addition to university-based academic research. A core part of BBSRC's training strategy, they provide students with an experience that allows them to develop business awareness in a collaborative context. Since 1994, BBSRC has funded more than 4000 CASE Studentships, bringing students together with top universities, research institutions and hundreds of companies in the biosciences.

Three Q&A features explore the experiences graduates encounter as they complete their projects. In this, the first, Stephanie Heard develops a new fungal pathogen detection system with The University of Manchester and Syngenta. In the second, Kelly Rooke splits her time between the University of Oxford and GSK to delve into the epigenetics of inflammation. In the third, Jessal Patel works with Unilever and University College London (UCL) to understand the biochemistry of bone loss and growth.

What was your CASE Studentship project?

I was part of a multi-disciplinary research group at the University of Manchester, and worked with a variety of industrial partners on the SYield Biosensing Network project, which was jointly funded by the TSB [Technology Strategy Board] and Syngenta. I was based at Rothamsted Research looking into the development of a biosensor which can detect a fungal pathogen of oilseed rape, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum.

Stephanie Heard demonstrating her field apparatus at Rothamsted Research. Image: Jon West

My role within the project was to look at the biology of the fungal pathogen to investigate how aspects of fungal growth could be used for the specific detection of this pathogen.

Did you make an end product?

We developed a prototype of a biosensor called the SYield biosensor which is placed in a field of oilseed rape and can detect the fungal pathogen within four days of its arrival. The sensor is based on detecting a specific analyte that the spores secrete during early germination and, the system sends a text to warn the farmer that the pathogen has been detected.

The ultimate aim of the system will be to combine the positive fungal detection events from the biosensor with other real-time information about the weather to determine whether there is a high or low risk of disease. This can then be used as a decision tool to help growers target their fungicide against this pathogen more effectively.

What attracted you to a CASE Studentship?

One aspect was being involved with a project where I could see the end goal, and having exposure to people in industry. I was always attracted by the work carried out at Syngenta, I learned about them during my undergraduate degree, and wanted to make links with people there. I knew the project would include both academic research and industry research, so I knew I'd get a broad understanding of how both sides work.

How much time did you spend with your industrial partner?

I visited Syngenta, Jealott's Hill on many occasions for various meetings and workshops. I also went to the University of Manchester to use the facilities there as well as help to build some of the devices at the workshop of one of the industrial partners, Burkard. Of course, there were plenty of laboratory facilities to use at Rothamsted as well as setting up the field trials at their farm.

I also had the opportunity to carry out research at the University of Florida for three months on a student travel bursary awarded by the John Pickett Travel Award and the Society for General Microbiology. This was a great way to build up further academic experience and make other contacts in other academic institutes. I really recommend that PhD students should all be encouraged to work in an overseas lab, industrial or academic, for a period of time during their project.

What did you get out of your industrial partner that you wouldn't get otherwise?

You definitely get in touch with a range of interesting academic contacts which is very useful for job hunting at the end of the PhD. If you did do a lab stint at their facilities you get to experience what it would be like to work in that type of environment. I also got to go to a European policy conference in Brussels sponsored by Syngenta, where I was able to see how legislation relevant to my work would be translated across Europe. My CASE PhD also awards a larger stipend, about £5,000 extra a year, on top of a typical stipend.

Because of company confidentiality or intellectual property issues did you experience any problems publishing your work?

The commercial aspect of the project meant that the work was highly censored so at the time there was no chance to publish our work, but there would be no problem publishing it now. This situation was quite unique and usually during a CASE PhD there is more freedom to publish the results as you go along.

I was also able work on a few side projects alongside the TSB project which allowed me to carry out research independently of the SYield project. As a result I have a paper pending publication.

What did your work with TSB bring?

It really highlighted what can be achieved when you combine academic research with the resources from industry. It showed me the importance of project management when working to a strict timetable. It was quite pressured at times as if I did not organise my work correctly I could affect downstream developments by not getting results from certain experiments in time. However, the schedule set within the TSB project gave me the motivation to achieve important milestones within my PhD.

L-R: Jon West (Rothamsted supervisor), Shradha Singh (Syngenta), Stuart Wiley (Burkard) and Dr Heard exhibiting the SYield biosensor at the Cereals 2013 conference.
L-R: Jon West (Rothamsted supervisor), Shradha Singh (Syngenta), Stuart Wiley (Burkard) and Dr Heard exhibiting the SYield biosensor at the Cereals 2013 conference.

Another benefit of the TSB project was learning how to work in within a multidisciplinary group. I also felt a great sense of satisfaction at the end of the project, knowing that we had developed a commercial prototype in a fairly short period of time.

What was it like working with many supervisors?

It was a bit confusing in the beginning as I had four supervisors in total. I had an industry supervisor based at Syngenta to guide me through the TSB work packages, and two academic supervisors at Rothamsted to provide day-to-day guidance. The fourth supervisor at the University of Manchester helped to facilitate the administrative side. You learn quite quickly which supervisor to go to for which problems!

Did you enter any competitions during your time?

I entered Biotechnology YES which was really good! It was great to have access to agricultural industry experts who are highly experienced. It was really interesting to pitch our ideas and get feedback. It was fun and quite bizarre because you start out thinking up fictional business plan but by the end of the competition you really think your idea could turn into something real. Before the competition, I definitely thought that I would never become an entrepreneur, but it did expose me to the process on how people go about developing a biotech business.

Did you undertake any public engagement activities?

I volunteered on the Society of General Microbiology stand at Cheltenham Science Festival, and at the Big Bang Fair with RRes. I also attended the agricultural events, Cereals on a number of occasions. This event was particularly important when presenting the SYield Biosensor idea to the farming community to gauge feedback and responses to the idea.

What are you doing now?

I'm now working as a food scientist at CWA International. We carry out forensic investigations into the causation of damaged food and feed cargoes. We have to apply scientific principles to discover damage causation and use this knowledge to implement mitigation steps. So I get to travel all around the world to find out what caused different food cargoes to deteriorate. On a day-to-day basis I provide advice for the care of dry commodity cargoes during storage and shipment. It's very, very different to lab work but really interesting and very exciting when attending different ports.

How did your CASE Studentship help prepare you for this role?

I think having interacted with a commercial goal in mind definitely helped crossing over to the private sector while remaining a scientist. Having more experience in project management and dealing with people from many different disciplines was also a big help. We have to work with a mix of people from engineers and scientists to lawyers and insurers, and you need to be able to keep up with it all.

Working with industry throughout my PhD studies gave me confidence; otherwise it could have been daunting having no experience of working in a wider group.

Banner image: shadhi on Flickr

Tags: crops pests Rothamsted Research skills and training feature