Exploring the unknown; the first 6 months of my PhD in an Alzheimer’s disease research lab

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By James Quinn | Thursday 12 May 2016

James Quinn looking through a MicroscopeI’m currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, taking a closer look at a protein called tau – a key hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Many of you reading this may be unsure what a PhD actually is. A PhD is the highest degree level a student can achieve and basically it acts as your initiation into the world of research and academia.

So why did I want do a PhD in the first place? My supervisor during my undergraduate degree, Prof Louise Serpell at the University of Sussex, was the one who really convinced me. After completing a summer project and my dissertation in her lab, I knew that I wanted to continue studying dementia as I had so many unanswered questions about its causes. My passion for understanding Alzheimer’s came from meeting people with the disease. Seeing how it impacts their lives made me realise how important it is that we develop a solid grasp of the mechanisms of a disease that affects so many across the globe.

There’s a lot of interesting research taking place across the UK and deciding where to continue my research career was difficult. I knew that I wanted to move to a lab that had an excellent reputation for Alzheimer’s research as well as taking part in public engagement activities, and I found this in Prof Nigel Hooper’s lab at the University of Manchester. I ended up being interviewed and selected to study a three-year PhD looking at the biology of Alzheimer’s disease. Once I had my degree results, all that stood in my way was the big move from Brighton up to Manchester!

I remember the night before I was due to start in the lab I was full of nerves, with a pinch of excitement to get started. The first couple of weeks were filled with health and safety forms, meetings with supervisors and mountains of reading around my project to find out what scientists already know and what needs to be better understood. But now I’m stuck into the lab work and doing some science! I’m investigating how one hallmark Alzheimer’s protein called tau is chopped up into different fragments and exploring the effects of these chopped up fragments on nerve cells in the laboratory. These tau fragments are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, but the reasons for their formation and their damaging effects are largely unknown. My research will hopefully help us better understand this process. I’ll also be investigating whether we can use tau fragments as a way of monitoring disease changes over time. This could be used in future drug trials to assess the effectiveness of treatments in preventing or slowing down the disease.

James Quinn PipettingThe nerve cells I’m studying need lots of attention and nutrients, so I spend a lot of time feeding and looking after my cells. I’m also getting to grips with different types of experimental techniques such as western blots (a method of identifying your protein of interest by size). I’ve been lucky enough to be welcomed into such a great group of scientists. There are 11 of us in the lab, including my project supervisor, four post-docs (people who’ve completed their PhD), 4 PhD students and two technicians. Being in a group of this size is fantastic as there are always people to help you out with every little question you have.

My favourite part about doing a PhD is getting the opportunity to attend some fantastic events, such as the recent Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference in Manchester. This conference opened my eyes to the fascinating research that is taking place around the globe, but my favourite part was attending the PhD day, where I had the opportunity to meet other PhD students and set up some exciting new collaborations. I also love the public engagement we do as a group. It’s great being able to talk to people about our research and help answer any questions about dementia in general. We are running a stall at the Brain Box event on the 19th June, where neuroscientists from Manchester and beyond will turn Manchester town hall into a massive exhibition showcasing the cutting-edge research we have on offer.

I may only be in the first few months of my PhD studies, but I am really looking forward to the next three years. I know that doing a PhD can be tough, but Alzheimer’s is tougher and this kind of research is key if we are to develop new treatments and preventative drugs for this disease that affects so many.

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About the author

James Quinn

James is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester. James' studies are taking a closer look at a protein called tau – a key hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.