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PhD: Procrastination, hallucination, dissertation – The life of a PhD student

3 Feb, 2011

Jonathan Lawson

Jonathan Lawson in the lab


In the first in a series of guest posts, Jonathan Lawson introduces himself and his first year as a Wellcome Trust PhD student.

Everyone likes a good reality show, right? Well I’d like to show you mine. It’s got all of the key elements: absurd challenges, OTT characters, harsh judges and even a healthy dose of dancing. I’m a Wellcome Trust PhD student and this year I will be working in three different labs around Cambridge.

Hi, I’m Jonathan Lawson. I’m 23 and have already spent four years in Cambridge as an undergraduate, which gave me a BA/MSci in Biochemistry (it’s one of those oddities of Cambridge that, no matter how scientific your degree, you will always be awarded a Bachelor of Arts). Although I spend a lot of time in the lab, outside of work I spend a lot of time dancing and my other major passion is baking. I have also just taken on the role of web editor for the student run Cambridge science magazine BlueSci.

My course is one of the Trust’s Four-year PhD Programmes and focuses on developmental biology, that is to say I study how a fully functioning organism emerges from a fertilised egg. The programme is unusual in that, in the first year, we have a choice of labs we can join, spread across different departments at the University. Each student chooses three labs to join, each for a short nine-week project. This is too short a time to make any significant contributions, but it does allow you to get a good idea of what work is going on in the lab, and whether you will fit in well with the social dynamic. At the end of the first year we choose to join one of these labs for our full 3-year PhD project. This allows students to better understand a lab, and the work, before joining for the long-term, the idea being that students generally feel happier and are more likely to complete their PhD.

This year there are six of us on the Cambridge developmental biology course with a broad range of interests. We have lectures with students from other courses a few times a week, designed to introduce the basics of developmental biology and important techniques. These are highly interactive sessions, encouraging a lot of back and forth between students and university fellows.

I’ll be posting here occasionally to keep you updated on my research as I move from lab to lab (you can follow a more in depth view of what I do day to day on my own blog). The groups I will be joining will use a variety of systems to study different aspects of development. I started by looking at chicken development, and worked with a very exciting group of cells found in the nose that have potential to aid regrowth after nerve damage. But I’ll tell you about that next time.

Jonathan Lawson, Wellcome Trust PhD student, University of Cambridge

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s Four-year PhD Programme

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