DPhil student in the Wellcome Trust Cellular Structural Biology programme (2014 to present)
What is your academic background?
I grew up in mid-Wales and did my undergraduate degree at Bath University where I started out studying Architecture before switching to Biochemistry. Despite apparent differences between the subjects, there are clearly links that make sense: architects structure space, whereas biochemists explore the structure that space has developed via natural selection. No surprise, then, that I became a member of the Wellcome Trust Cellular Structural Biology DPhil programme, supervised by Thomas Bowden and Juha Huiskonen.
Tell us about your research
My work focuses on arenaviruses such as the Lassa virus, using structural analysis of their glycoproteins to understand their mechanisms of infection – and hopefully a basis for vaccine development. I focus on a difficult protein target for structure determination (it has 9 transmembrane α-helices and 33 sugar sidechains) but using crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy in combination I am making good progress.
The biggest challenge is understanding the way in which the proteins are arranged in the virus itself, because it is very polymorphic in structure. Among the other techniques I use, I am taking an unusual approach to mapping protein arrangements in arenaviruses by looking at the ways in which X-rays damage his samples, which I can map using mass spectrometry. If I see damage, I’ve identified a region that’s exposed in the assembled structure, and if I don’t, it’s buried within it.
Why did you choose this DPhil programme?
I was especially attracted by the Wellcome programme because of the opportunity to try different rotations. These informed my final choice of project, and allowed me to get training in new approaches while exploring different fields. I’ve also benefitted from the infrastructure at Oxford. I’m a member of New College, and have had a very positive experience there. Living in College exposed me to a variety of people outside the lab, although I now live out in central Oxford, near the Thames.
What does a normal day look like for you?
Flexibility is a necessary thing in research work and also a big plus, but a normal working day starts around 10am and runs on to 6 or 7pm. As well as my research, I have do Biological Chemistry classes with Biochemistry degree students at the university. This has been challenging but a great experience – like the DPhil itself, it develops transferable skills and strengthens my day-to-day independence.
What do you do outside of your DPhil?
Outside of science, I still finds way to explore some of the interests that attracted me to Architecture. I’m currently learning pottery at the local HE college, am a keen photographer, and particularly enjoy printmaking. The reproducibility of the printmaker’s art is very pleasing, and links back to the crystallographic work that helped draw me into the structural biology programme in the first place.