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 second, Kelly Rooke splits her time between the University of Oxford and GSK to delve into the epigenetics of inflammation. In the first, Stephanie Heard develops a new fungal pathogen detection system with the University of Manchester and Syngenta. 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'm looking at chromatin [a DNA and protein storage complex] modifying mechanisms in inflammatory macrophages in rheumatoid arthritis. We're using small molecule inhibitors for epigenetic targets to try and reduce inflammation.
So this leans towards the drug discovery?
Yes, I work in collaboration with the Epinova DPU [department] at GSK. I use some of their small molecule inhibitors, and others from the academic departments in Oxford University, so it's good to have both.
How did you get into your CASE Studentship?
I worked in industry before at GSK and I liked the structure and the way its set up, and I wanted to be involved in both industry and academia since you can also publish in industry. There is a bigger crossover in industry and academia with a CASE Studentship and I liked the idea of getting benefits of both.
How have you found the academic-industrial mix?
I can imagine some would think the balance between academia and the pharmaceutical industry is difficult because both have different priorities and expertise therefore the ideas for your project might vary. But I have found personally that I have gained positive experiences from both sides. I get a lot of pastoral support, and get to go to the industrial partner for access to equipment that I wouldn't have with the academic partner and gain a different view on my project I may not have thought about before. They both collaborate well. We have regular meetings between both sides and data is shared between the relevant people.
What are the benefits of doing part of your PhD in industry?
With regards to equipment, GSK has access to more high-tech, faster and more superior machinery. If you want to do high-throughput studies for large amounts of samples, its beneficial in that sense – you can get 400 samples at once rather than 10 days doing 40 at a time. Also some consumables that are unusual in our academic department and would be expensive if you don't order in bulk are likely to be more readily available in industry.
Although, I'm lucky with the academic side too because I have access to Oxford University facilities which are also very substantial.
I get a lot of extra pastoral support from GSK too, and expertise from experienced scientists and maybe a different view on my project. This is something I've really benefited from. It's also an opportunity to see what the pharmaceutical industry is like for a scientist, for future career ideas.
What was your previous job that led to your CASE Studentship?
I was originally a phlebotomist at GSK and I used to take blood, part-time. I asked to work in GSK's Epinova DPU to get work experience while applying for a PhD, and was given quite a structured support network and they supported me to get PhD funding. I was given three months training to learn to use the small molecule inhibitors and other basic techniques before starting my PhD.
How different is it being back in academia?
It's definitely a different environment. Academia allows the freedom to explore subjects of interest that you can publish as an interesting piece of data. I really like this part of academia, researching things just because you're interested in the outcome. Industry has a more structured way of doing it. I think having a balance is really important.
Have you encountered any restrictions on publishing papers from your industry work?
Overall there are more publishing opportunities in academia as that's how you make your career, but I have some collaborative publications on the way. In industry your status as a scientist is not just based on publications, but there are more opportunities to publish now in industry. I think collaborations with partners are beneficial, it must help industry to publish more.
What skills have you developed?
A lot of useful lab and cell culture techniques; I have found culturing inflammatory cells from the joints of patients very challenging.
But also a lot of interpersonal management. There will always be challenges balancing my goals with the advice and aims set out by multiple supervisors, but this isn't something unique to academia and industry. However these two areas sometimes have different priorities, for example I might have made a list of tasks to complete, some are prioritised more by one supervisor than the other, but that's what you get when you have four supervisors, especially when you know they are all highly skilled and experienced. In general from my experience most collaboration with industry works well, and in my case very well.
How is it working with multiple supervisors?
I have two at GSK and two at Oxford, so it is a balancing act. My first supervisor is based at Oxford and is the main driving force of my PhD project and regular go to person. The other in Oxford is a rheumatologist who helps me with patient samples and medical knowledge. My GSK supervisors are also involved regularly, one is the head of the Epinova DPU but still has lots of feedback and support for me, which is great. The other provides direct lab supervision, I have learnt so much from her, and she also gives a lot of pastoral support.
Would you advise other people to try a CASE Studentship?
Yes, definitely. I was lucky to get it from a job in industry but that's unusual I think. A lot of people here go straight from their degree to academia which really sets you up for a future career. But how would you know what industry is like? You might not get on with industry, or you might realise it's really for you, so it's a great opportunity to see what it's like even if it's only three months with industry partners.
Did you do the three months in industry all at once?
It was more a week here and a week there over the last two-and-a-half years. It depends on the project and what machinery/expertise you need to you use. And two-to-three times a year I go for regular updates and to present data. I hope to spend a longer period of time there towards the end of my PhD.
I like that the CASE Studentships are four years and not three. The samples I need are rare and working with human samples is variable so it takes a lot of time to optimise assays and gain enough material for publication so having that extra year really counts – especially talking to other four-year placement students.
What are your next plans?
I would like to go back to industry because I've had the experience of both academia and industry and I know I like the structure of the pharmaceutical industry. It helps that you can also publish more in industry now, which I think will attract more people to industry too. I do like academia and its freedom, so would still like to work with a link to academia.
It may just be me, but working with an industrial partner means I'm more motivated every day because this research could potentially go on to be practically used, even in 10-15 years' time, your research might contribute to drug developments that benefit actual people.
Banner image: shadhi on Flickr