BSDB Beddington medal winner 2017
At one year into my first postdoc, I hope that I am still towards the beginning of my scientific career. So far, I have just followed where my interests took me as they changed and developed over time, and am fortunate that they led me on a good route.
During my undergrad (Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford) I was fairly set on pursuing theoretical evolutionary biology, but some cool lecture courses on developmental biology / evo-devo towards the end of the degree had me wavering in that decision. One of my final year projects was in mathematical modelling another was on the evolution of arthropod segmentation, and I didn’t know which topic I liked better. Luckily, my lack of organisation meant I didn’t yet have any fixed future plans, and so there was no requirement to rush into a decision.
To help make up my mind, I worked as a lab assistant for a couple of months, which was a great opportunity to get to know real scientists and real research. That sent me along another tangent: I noticed that many of the PhD students and postdocs were doing lots of sequence analysis and/or teaching themselves programming languages, and since I preferred the desk to the bench anyway, I decided it would be useful/fun to learn how to code.
I therefore spent a year doing an MSc in Bioinformatics and Theoretical Systems Biology at Imperial College London, which got me interested in systems biology aspects of development. I still wanted to go into evo-devo, and so I got in contact with Michael Akam at the University of Cambridge, whose papers I’d come across while researching my undergrad project. I had a vague idea that I wanted to do something combining my two original interests of mathematical modelling and arthropod segmentation. Michael was a bit dubious about this when I interviewed and did try to dissuade me from picking him as a supervisor, but not very hard. I then had to hurriedly write a PhD proposal to catch the deadline for the BBSRC DTP, and was lucky enough to get funding.
I didn’t know much about embryos when I started at Cambridge, and had even less of an idea what I should actually do for my project. Again, I was lucky that I was afforded the time and freedom to arrive at a good decision. I spent most of my first year reading the literature, and discovered the intriguing puzzle of the Drosophila pair-rule system. I remembered being frustrated at not understanding the 7-stripe to 14-stripe transition back at undergrad, and now I realised that actually no one really understood this problem, not just me.
Working on the pair-rule network turned out to be a great PhD project, for two reasons. First, no one had really looked at it in a decade, and there was much to see with fresh eyes and modern methods. Second, the new insights into Drosophila patterning ended up having surprising and exciting evolutionary implications, of interest to researchers working on a whole variety of different organisms. I was really honoured that the BSDB chose to award me the Beddington medal for this work, and it was a fantastic experience to present my results at the Spring meeting in 2017.
At the end of my PhD, Michael and I co-wrote a grant application to the BBSRC to follow up on my findings, and Michael also encouraged me to apply for a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Both applications ended up being successful, allowing me to continue to work in Cambridge for the time being. I think that the applications were really helped by having attended a grant writing workshop run by the postdoc committee in Cambridge, and also by an early adoption of preprints, so that I had something to show for myself before my papers were officially out.
At the moment I am still working on segmentation, partly in collaboration with friends I have made through the evo-devo community. I would like to start my own lab in a few years, and continue to combine experiments and models to understand the evolution of developmental patterning networks in arthropods.