PhD advice: An Interview with Sophie Arthur

Who is Sophie Arthur (@soph.talks.science)?

Hey I’m Soph! I’m heading into my final year of my PhD at the University of Southampton where I study stem cell metabolism. Yes I know it sounds dull but it’s not. I’m basically working out how a stem cell’s ‘sweet tooth’ helps to keep it a stem cell so we have a better population of cells that we can use in future medicine. I’m also a keen science communication enthusiast. I love talking about science with anyone that will listen and I’m experimenting with different ways I can do that at the moment; my blog being one of those.

After my PhD, who knows what I’ll be doing because I still don’t know what I want to do. I love research, but I also love writing and communicating science but I do want to work in a lab abroad too so honestly I have no idea at the moment. Outside science, I love sport. Every kind of sport. I used to play every sport under the sun, but now I don’t and it’s probably my biggest regret from uni is not continuing to play hockey. I played a lot of cricket though with my girls back home but can’t bring myself to join another team here because it just wouldn’t be the same. I have a major case of wanderlust so I’m often just browsing websites looking at the cost of flights and hotels so I can book my next trip, but unfortunately a student budget doesn’t really allow for much travel.

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Tell us a little bit more about your stem cell research – where do you hope to go in your career?

So, I look at stem cell metabolism and how that keeps them pluripotent; or keeps them as stem cells.

Literally, I want to go round the world with my career to many different conferences and labs so I can explore the cities and countries they are in hah. But I love research and I love science communication and I honestly don’t think I can do both to the extent I want to so I am going to have to choose one soon which is a daunting thought. If it’s research though I want to stay working with stem cells. I’m not too bothered about which type of stem cell and whether its revealing the biology like I’m doing now or working towards more of a therapeutic goal, but it has to be stem cells. Stem cells are the future for me so that’s what I want to stay in.

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Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash.

Do you have any experiences (good or bad) that stand out to you as a woman in STEM?

There has only been one incident which made me think twice. It happened in January this year. I was walking home from lab which is literally over the road, so there was only a small window of opportunity for this. I bumped into one of my neighbours and did the usual ‘Hello, how are you? Lovely day isn’t it?’ chat that you do but on this occasion she obviously wanted to get into more of a conversation. So she asked me what I did. Obviously I replied proudly that I was a scientist. Then she literally looked me up and down replied ‘You don’t look like a scientist’ and walked away! I was so shocked I didn’t really think about what she had said until a few hours later.

By this time I had wound myself up and vented via my blog – check out my post called ‘You don’t look like a scientist’ if you fancy! Turns out this is my most viewed blog post, so maybe I should vent more often 😛 hah

Other than that I have never had a problem. I have never felt like, because I was a woman in STEM, I was not preferred to the next person. And my lab now is entirely women and I am part of this incredible STEM Squad community that will support you through anything which is great!

To check out Sophie’s blog click on her logo.

Do you have any advice on ‘what not to do’ as a postgraduate science student?

Don’t compare your PhD journey to that of anyone else’s. Everyone progresses differently. Everyone has different experiments to do. Everyone encounters different issues and everyone’s PhD project is different. The whole reason you are doing your PhD is because there is no one else in the world asking that specific question. You might start at the same time as someone else and then when you give your first departmental talk they have graphs and graphs of data whereas you are showing what you’ve tried to try and get a protocol to work but you are still optimising and you panic that you are not working hard enough. Don’t panic.

For example, I do a lot of protein analysis work so it is relatively easy for me to collect a sample and run a Western blot and get a result. Whereas someone else in my lab is working on a differentiation protocol and each one of their experiments takes 21 days in culture, then another 14 days in the next stage and then they have to analyse it. That’s a good 6 weeks for one result compared to my 1. As long as you’re solving your issues, it doesn’t matter what someone else is doing.

And I know it’s a bit counter intuitive – but don’t be too hard on yourself if experiments don’t work. The first thing I tell my students is that experiments sometimes for no reason at all just don’t work and we don’t know why. It is incredibly frustrating. But the sooner you accept this happens and channel that anger into repeating it again, the easier your journey will be. After all we are all human and can make mistakes.

What bothered you most about Benefit’s recent ad campaign?

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It just sent out the completely wrong message! I’m not a girl who wears loads of make up everyday – it’s tinted moisturiser and mascara for me – so I didn’t see it definitively as I’m a nerd I can’t wear make up!  My issue was more what has going to class, or even being late to class go to do with selling make up anyway. I suppose it’s more a body positivity thing for me. You should be able to wear as much or as little make up you want and it have no effect on the grades you get.

Hell, if I never when to class because I didn’t have concealer on, I would have never been in class!

The amount of times at uni I rocked up to an 8am lecture after getting in the night before at 3am hungover and looking a state, but I still went because I wanted to learn. My biggest problem I guess was that it was saying you should choose beauty over brains and this is just the completely wrong message to send to anyone who wants to wear make up. Pitching it in an ever so slightly different way as – Don’t skip class, use our concealer – and we have the complete opposite story. We would be commending Benefit for encouraging girls to get an education no matter what they looked like.

I see that you’re a Potterhead, so am I!!! – Who would you say you’re most like?

I think my friends would say I’m like Hermione. But I’d say I’m probably more of a Molly Weasley, always looking out for other people before myself.

 

If you could take away just one prop from the studios, completely free, which one would it be?!

Oh, a tough question. Choosing just one prop is a difficult choice, but I think I would go with the Elder Wand.

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