Hello everyone. It has been quite some time since the last “Meet the scientist” feature- but sometimes it is worth the wait!
It would like to introduce you all to the lovely Alice Godden. Alice is a 2nd year PhD student based in the Wheeler lab at the University of East Anglia. The Wheeler lab specialises in the investigation of tissue development, by using the model organism Xenopus, which is an African claw-toed frog. As well as doing some super interesting work into tissue development. Alice is a great science communicator and has recently written an article in the science magazine Wonk, given a talk at the latest pint of science event, and presented her research in under 3 minutes as part of the 3-minute thesis competition.
So, let’s learn a bit more about Alice and her work!
E: Let’s firstly talk about your work- you work with frogs! What do you use them for?
A: Yes! I work with frogs, the African claw-toed frog species Xenopus laevis and Xenopus tropicalis. They range in size from fun-size to full-size mars bar (to scale). We use these lovely frogs to generate eggs- frogspawn! We can fertilize these eggs easily in the lab by IVF to generate embryos. With these embryos I can study how tissues grow and what molecular mechanisms are involved in their development.
E: The frog works as a model organism in your lab- but how does your work in these frogs relate to humans?
A: I study the neural crest, an embryonic tissue and I’m looking at how microRNAs affect it’s development. For more information on microRNAs please check out an article I recently published with Wonk! Magazine here (https://www.wonkmagazine.co.uk/microrna). The neural crest is important in the development of many parts of the human body, the craniofacial skeleton, parts of the peripheral nervous system, pigment and many more. When this doesn’t quite develop right, we have a group of diseases called neurocristopathies. These range in severity and management from a simple cleft palette which is treated with surgery up to cancers like melanoma and neuroblastoma. By understanding the molecular mechanisms behind how the neural crest develops it is hoped we can better recapitulate the developing neural crest through stem cell biology to generate therapies and interventions.
E: What does life look like in a developmental biology lab?
A: In a developmental biology lab we have a range of model organisms in the lab, not just frog but also chicken, so my lab bench neighbour will quite often have a dozen eggs on her bench ready to work with!
With my experiments I generally do a few main things:
1. Embryo manipulation, this includes injection of morpholinos; morpholinos are oligonucleotides (short DNA molecules) designed to bind to complementary mRNAs of interest to block gene expression. Messenger RNA (mRNA), is a molecule which carries genetic information from DNA to the ribosome for translation to protein. I would then perform a whole-mount in situ hybridisation experiment to observe any effects on gene expression and embryo development.
2. Embryo gene expression analysis- with whole-mount in-situ hybridisation (WISH) experiments I can analyse gene expression by colour reaction- looking for a purple staining in the area of expression.
WISH works by incubating embryos with an RNA-labelled probe that can be traced. This RNA probe is complementary (sticky) to the mRNA of the gene you are interested in observing. An antibody is added later in the process, this antibody then binds with the RNA-labelled probe that was complementary to with your mRNA. We then perform a colour reaction, so where your RNA probe has bound, we would then see a purple-blue colour. This shows where your gene is expressed. Voila!
3. Imaging and time course imaging of embryos that have been manipulated, carefully looking for any subtle differences in tadpole development.
E : When did you first learn about developmental biology, and what made you go into this area of research?
A: I first learnt about developmental biology as an undergraduate bioscience student. I was inspired into the field by great teaching, my lecturer Dr. Rajic, who gave inspirational talks into embryo development and molecular biology. She also talked about small non-coding RNAs, that affect gene expression, without coding for any proteins themselves. These included microRNAs and piwi-RNAs, these form and interact with “RISC” complexes, RNA-induced silencing complexes that can down-regulate gene expression by complementary binding. I then learnt more about microRNAs on my masters course. I always found genetics interesting and signalling pathways, and the effect of microRNAs just blew my mind.
E: Let’s talk a bit about the PhD. You are now in your 2nd year of your PhD- how is that going, and what have you learnt along the way?
A: I’m coming up to half way through my second year of my PhD, I’m on a 4-year PhD, so I have a little longer than some of my peers. I’m in the “fun-zone” where the data is starting to come in and where we are at the fore-front of the research project. I have recently got back from the international conference in my field and had a super-amazing time meeting all the froggy-neural-crest-researchers. I got to present some of my results and I also got told some of the best advice I’d learnt on my PhD. A fellow PhD student said; “expect nothing, gain everything”. That way you always win. I like that. Working with an animal model has ups and downs, sometimes you don’t have enough embryos, sometimes you have too many, sometimes the eggs don’t fertilise.
So, the key thing I have learnt is to manage expectations; not to be impatient. This is super-important. I knew things didn’t 100% work all the time, and I knew science took time, but when it’s your project you feel like an extra sense of optimism, and rightfully so, but you’re allowed a cup of tea too!
E: What do you wish you had known before starting out on the PhD?
A: How to catch frogs! Although apparently as a 5-year old I did know how to do this quite well.
Ok, I wish I had known how to look after myself a bit better. After a hectic first year I just kept piling on pressure and wanting to get things working and improve as a scientist. This just got overwhelming and tired me out. As part of our PhD programme we had a wellbeing session on Mindfulness. Which put simply is enjoying the moment, living in the present, and not worrying about things in the future- because you can only exist in the present. There are many exercises like meditation and breathing exercises which can help you be in the present. I found this useful and went on a more detailed course. This helped me so much. I can concentrate more and work more efficiently and productively too. I highly recommend it- I think it would have been useful as an undergraduate student to have learnt these practices.
E: Through your PhD you have participated in a lot of different science outreach and communication activities, how did you get involved in these projects? And, do you have any advice for anyone looking to do more science communication and outreach?
A: I have always felt like paying forward advice I was given by lecturers, teachers, employers, scientists etc on to the next generation. As a first-gen grad I want to help other students who are going through similar situations as I did and help them. I am a little addicted to twitter, #scicomm will help you find other scientists globally who like to communicate their science. I also recommend speaking to engagement and outreach as well as widening participation officers at your university. They are always keen to have people on board. In Norwich we also have events like Pint of Science and Norwich science festival among others, so outside the uni there are other events to get involved with. Just ask around its great fun.
E: You just did your first pint of science event! First of all, how was it? And do you have any tips from your experience that could be useful for others about to do a big public talk?
A: I did a talk called “The magical mystery of microRNAs: How they made you”. This was the first time I had spoken about my work to the public. I spoke about my PhD research project but built up to it in layers. I was unsure what the demographic of my audience would be, I knew some scientists would be there, but Pint of Science is a public event, so I needed to cover all concepts in the talk for all to understand and engage. I think it is important to go to simple so everyone knows rather than lose your audience on something complex that isn’t explained well, as it is tricky to recover from this. Another tip would be don’t practice too much. I don’t like to memorise presentations, I prefer to know the science, and know my outline and that way it’s not a monotonous drone of stuff, it’s more fun and I feel as though I do better a little freestyle, I’m not worrying I used a different word for something, so I’m less nervous this way. I also find listening to others talk a great learning experience, check out some TED talks on YouTube they always have great speakers.
E: Outside the lab what do you like to get up to?
A: Outside of the lab I like to do gardening. I find gardening relaxing and just enjoyable. It’s so different to being in a sterile lab environment, it’s ok to be a bit messy. The best bit is getting to chill out in the sunshine when all the flowers are in bloom.
E: What is your favourite thing about your research?
A: Being pretty much independent but part of a team at the same time. I have support if I need it, but other than that I’m self-managed. I can plan my time and experiments accordingly- it’s like almost being self-employed. I am also allowed to talk over any ideas I have even if they aren’t strictly related or directly linked to my work- my boss will either help me develop them or give constructive reasoning as to why we might not be able to do that yet.
Thank you so much to Alice for giving us some insight into the life of a developmental scientist. If you would like to find out more about what Alice, and the wheeler lab gets up to, make sure to check out the links below:
Follow Alice: @AliceGodden
And finally make sure you check out Alice’s latest blog articles for wonk! Magazine and follow wonk! Magazine on twitter for some great new #scicomm articles!
If you would like to be a featured scientist, please do get in contact via the form on here, or message me on Instagram/ twitter 🙂 Also, remember to go check out the other amazing featured scientists!