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How my research project boosted my scientific career as a PhD student

How my research project boosted my scientific career as a PhD student

By Fane Mensah, PhD Candidate, UCL

Starting a PhD project would have been much easier by accepting a constructed and fully funded PhD project. But what if you are a risk taker, a doer and want to challenge yourself? What If you could write your own PhD project, experience the struggle to secure funding, by following an unconventional route? In the end, this would be something you need to do as a scientist anyway, so why don’t start now?!

First choose, 1st choice!

After finishing a bachelor’s degree in Biology & Medical-Laboratory Sciences (Rotterdam University, the Netherlands) and an MSc in Infection & Immunity (Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) I decided to explore my passion for science by following “the normal” route and start a PhD.

This meant I had to make 2 big choices:

  1. Where do I want to go? And how am I going to search for a PhD project that suits my interests? The first choice was quite an easy one as it has always been my dream to work in one of the top universities in London. A metropolitan city, the lifestyle, the different cultures, the rain (I really love rain), and not to forget the premier league (I am a massive football fan)! Institutes such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College, and University College London (UCL) are universities known for their prestige all over the world, therefore, I knew it had to be London.
  2. The second one was the toughest one, as I really wanted to be involved in my own project design and not work on a project constructed by someone else. I decided to approach research groups working on subjects that really interested me, rather than applying for a ready to go PhD project. This resulted in a really nice reply from Dr Cambridge, a well-known and respected scientist in the field of rheumatology at UCL. She is mainly known for her pioneering work on B-cell depletion-therapy in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), along with Professor Edwards back in the 90s (so yes, a very famous research group).She offered me the opportunity to initiate a new project studying B-cell phenotype in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). If successful, I would have the opportunity to write a PhD project and apply for further funding. With the experience in B-cell ontogeny depletion-therapy in the group of Dr Cambridge I felt I was in the right place at the right time, not to forget that I had the opportunity to work on my favourite lymphocyte, B-cells! I also had an important personal requirement to work on a research project of which I could see the clinical endpoint, which was the case with ME/CFS.

ME/CFS project

ME/CFS is a heterogeneous disease of unknown aetiology without an established diagnostic test. The condition is characterised by fatigue, cognitive impairment and post-exertional malaise after mental or physical exertion lasting for at least 6 months. ME/CFS has long been thought to have a psychological nature, but the lack of treatment and boost of biomedical research over the recent years has sparked the attention of many scientists. Positive results from trials with B-cell depletion-therapy using rituximab suggested a significant role of B-cells in ME/CFS. I saw this poorly characterised disease as a great challenge for an early career scientist, to make an impact on the biomedical research in this field.

I singlehandedly had to set up a new clinic for ME/CFS patients and dealt with all the logistics to ensure clinical visits and sample taking (management).

During my study, I compared extended B-cell phenotypes between healthy controls and ME/CFS patients. This was mainly based on flow cytometry work, a technique often used in immunology using fluorescent-labelled antibodies to detect proteins or ligands that bind to specific molecules (e.g. surface CD markers or intracellular proteins), such as CD19, CD27 and IgD (markers used to delineate B-cell subsets). This project was the base for functional studies to understand B-cell metabolism through maturation and the possible role these immune cells might play in ME/CFS.

Hard work pays off!

After 1 year, I completed my initial phenotype study, which allowed me to write my first peer-reviewed research article which was published in Clinical and Experimental Immunology (scientific writing).

Throughout, I learned so much and gained confidence in working as a scientist. This confidence was tested, when my supervisor suggested me to present my data at different events including the international IIME conference in London, a networking event at GSK and the UCL IIT annual Immunology Symposium, where I won an early career researcher poster prize (winning).

Presenting data at meetings or conferences was a great opportunity to meet fellow scientists in the field, but also great for collaborations and funding (networking).

The Power of networking

The fact that I was actively present at such events resulted in receiving great interest in my work. I managed to set up both national and international collaborations for my PhD project, including those with Dr Fluge and Professor Mella from the Haukeland University Hospital (Bergen, Norway), the oncologists leading the Rituximab clinical trials in ME/CFS, who also acted as referees for my PhD proposal. Finally, I demonstrated my ambition, scientific capacity and resourcefulness by successfully writing and obtaining an Invest in ME Research grant to fully support my PhD project, after presenting at their annual conferences (funding application). The hard work really paid off!

So far, my work has led to a total of 14 invitations at international conferences and/or meetings (of which 9 oral presentations), including 3 closed meetings with collaborators (presentation). I was also invited to write a review in the fatigue feature of the NCCN and received a Ramsay award by Solve ME/CFS Initiative, a charitable organisation from the US dedicated to ME/CFS. This grant is part of a cross-disciplinary project with Melbourne University, combining the field of Immunology (B-cells) and metabolism “Immuno-metabolism” (collaboration).

With my experience, I also wanted to set an example for PhD students and therefore became a PhD representative for the British Society for Immunology (voluntary work).

My risky route and the support of both my supervisors (Dr. Cambridge and Dr. Leandro) to develop my skills has offered me anything and more I could think of, with the right will, commitment, guidance and supervision there are a lot of opportunities for PhD students. The power of a network has really opened my eyes and that is something I definitely recommend to fellow PhD students: don’t be afraid to explore, join societies, start blogging, use social media to reach out, and most importantly showcase your skills

6th Nov 2018 Fane Mensah, PhD Candidate, UCL

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