Name: Lizzie Gemmell
Age range: 25
Research institution: Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University
Research career length: 3 years
Research Council: Medical Research Council (MRC)
Location: Newcastle, England
Salary: £13,000 stipend
Brief summary of research: Investigating the cause of dementia in stroke patients
A-levels: Biology, Chemistry and Economics
BSc Hons in Biomedical Sciences at Newcastle University
MRes in Neuroscience at Newcastle University
Researching for a PhD at Newcastle University>
“Research can be expensive and time consuming, but it is crucial that it is done for progress to be made. On a personal level, research is something fulfilling and worthwhile, as your work could make a difference to people's lives”.
My research focuses on understanding what causes dementia in people following a stroke. I am particularly interested in changes that happen to brain cells (neurons) in a region called the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory formation and storage. By examining donated brain tissue, I'm investigating how these cells change in shape and function in people who had a stroke and subsequently developed dementia. I hope that this research will ultimately lead to the development of safe and effective treatments to prevent or reverse mental decline after stroke.
In research, you are responsible for your own projects, but you are also part of a team of people working on similar things to you with the same Principal Investigator (PI or ‘Boss’). We have regular informal group meetings to share and discuss ideas, and often people end up helping each other out on their projects. Collaborations with researchers in other departments and universities (even abroad) are encouraged, and can give you an opportunity to work with people doing quite different things from you. Because you become so involved in your own research projects, a PhD has the potential be solitary if you don't make an effort with other people. However, as there are lots of students working in each lab, usually of a similar age, there are always plenty of social events where you can make friends and enjoy yourself!
My working life consists of planning and carrying out research projects; involving generating ideas, developing experimental techniques and gathering data. Once I have the data, I then carry out statistical analysis and write it up for publication in a scientific journal. A fair part of my time is spent reading to further my understanding and plan new projects. I also attend and present my research at two or three conferences per year, and spend a few days demonstrating on Undergraduate courses where I teach students practical lab techniques.
My future career depends to some extent on whether I can secure a position and further funding. Following a PhD, the main career path is normally through a postdoc. These positions come with funding for you to do your own research, however when this funding runs out, you need to apply for funding to further your research or gain another postdoctoral role. Competition for these posts can be tough, as there are more PhD graduates than post-docs. An alternative option in my field is to work for a pharmaceutical company, which may bring greater job security and pay, though competition can still be tough.
I think doing a PhD equips you with lots of useful transferable skills such as project management, analytic skills and communication skills, all of which are desirable even if you chose to move out of research.