Country Fresh Air and Silent Genes


I often muse over how this Canadian city girl ended up in the middle of the Berkshire countryside, especially when the air feels particularly country fresh as I walk from my car. After completing an undergraduate degree in genetics, and a stressful master's degree, I followed my then boyfriend back to his native Britain for a short break from academia. But once in the UK I decided that I could live on this side of the ocean for a while, and started to search for a PhD position.

I had actually already attempted to score one of the few annual Commonwealth scholarships before even coming to Britain, but to no avail. Now I found that most of the suitable PhD positions advertised in universities were Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC) studentships. Translation: you had to be resident in the European Union for the prior 3 years to be eligible. The remaining studentships were worse: you had to be British! I began to think that my quest was in vain.

However, in the nick of time I came upon an advertisement for PhD studentships at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH; and a BBSRC institute, I might add) that were actually open to us foreign types. I was interested in changing research direction for a PhD, and one of the positions that appealed to me was to study novel chicken endogenous retroviruses, leftovers from ancient retroviral infections that have become incorporated into the chicken genome. What appealed to me even more were the benefits of a British PhD through IAH: Three years of adequate financial support and registration at a university ( the Royal Veterinary College, University of London in my case), with fees paid by the institute. My other alternative was to return to Ontario and pay university tuition fees out of a less-than-generous PhD stipend for what looked to me like a much more indefinite period of time. So off to Compton I went!

Being in a government lab in a small village you do miss out on some of the elements of graduate school that I think I was fortunate to experience by doing a master's degree in Canada first. There are no undergraduate students at the institute, so there are no teaching or lab demonstrating duties. That may be a slight hindrance if one wants to go on to a job that requires some teaching experience, but some people might see that as yet another plus.

There is also a much more nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday atmosphere with regimented coffee breaks that take some getting used to, especially after working in a university where there are loads of graduate students still buzzing around at nine o'clock at night and on weekends. On top of the out-of-hours desolation, it can also feel a bit geographically isolated at IAH at times. This struck me one day as I was waiting in the personnel office. I looked out of the window, and instead of people and bustle, the view was of sheep grazing in a field not too far away.

For me, however, these few drawbacks have been more than counterbalanced by the advantages, including substantial research funding, and the excellent facilities and support staff, which far surpass what was available in my previous lab.

A real contrast with my former university experience is the structure of IAH. While everyone in the university biology departments seemed to be operating in their own very focused and disparate area, the researchers at IAH are part of highly collaborative units. This is likely due to the entire institute being dedicated to research on animal disease and immunity, creating an environment where there is a large concentration of people with expertise in these fields. Our avian immunology and pathology group meets regularly, with labs taking it in turns each month to present their work. While I enjoy the research going on in our lab, I have also gained from being part of this larger entity.

It has been 10 months since my PhD viva, and I am continuing some work from my PhD project as a postdoc. Like many of the other former students here, I started my postdoc at IAH a month after the 3-year PhD term ended and finished my thesis in the evenings and on weekends. Staying in the same lab seemed like a good idea because I had done a lot of the groundwork on some research that I wanted to see through and, more importantly, I couldn't imagine finding a more supportive supervisor.

Recently, I have branched off into a new direction, applying RNA interference gene silencing technology to our own avian research. This is an exciting area of investigation I began to follow closely this year seeing that new techniques were being developed to allow the manipulation of mammalian cells. I have been fortunate to have the support of my supervisor to diversify into a new area that we both envision has great potential for poultry research.

Doing a PhD at IAH has been an incredible opportunity for me to study abroad. I think I was very lucky to be looking for a studentship when IAH was advertising, otherwise I might not have found a position for which I was eligible. I would like to stay on and continue the postdoctoral work a great deal longer, but it is time now to look for another job. The British boyfriend that I followed here is now my husband, and he has a faculty job lined up back in Ontario starting in January. Alas, we are a dual-career couple, and I am about to become the trailing spouse. Wish me luck.

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