For this week’s meet the scientist we say hello to Layal the lovely scientist behind sciencespedup on Instagram, and @Layallivs on twitter. On sciencespedup Layal showcases diverse science and scientists through sped up short science videos.
Layal was a PhD student (Massive congratulations for passing your Viva!) at the University of Oxford studying how human cells recognise virus infection. She was also a British Science Association media fellow, and freelance writer for the guardian, and now her PhD is over, she is continuing her career in science journalism. Layal is now working as a News Intern at New Scientist magazine in London.
E: First, let’s talk a bit about your PhD, can you tell us a bit more about your research project?
L: My PhD research has focused on investigating how human cells recognise and respond to infection by viruses. Viruses are microorganisms that hijack living cells in order to make more copies of themselves, causing disease in the process. Our cells can detect invading viruses using special proteins called sensors. During my PhD I have been studying a particular virus sensor called ZBP1, which recognises invading viruses and activates anti-viral cell suicide in response. Cell suicide kills the virus-infected cell and destroys the virus along with it. We now have a better understanding of exactly how ZBP1 senses viruses and activates this powerful immune response inside cells.
E: As a researcher of viruses and immunity, can you give a quick insight into the sort of lab work you did?
L: Cells can recognise virus infection and commit suicide as a powerful anti-viral immune response. To measure this cell death in the laboratory, we can grow cells in the presence of a coloured dye that stains dead cells specifically. We can then infect these cells with a virus and use a microscope to monitor the number of stained (dead) cells over time. Research in our lab was focused on a number of different viruses, including influenza virus, HIV, herpes viruses and Zika virus. When working with viruses in the laboratory, we follow strict health and safety protocols.
E: How did you get into your area of science, and what inspired you to do a PhD?
L: Since I was a child I have been curious about the world around us and the world within us. I loved science in school and was fortunate to have an amazing biology teacher in high school, who had a PhD herself. I studied Biomedical Sciences at University College London (UCL), which is where my fascination with viruses developed. At UCL I had a brilliant virology lecturer and fantastic lab supervisors, who introduced me to the world of scientific research. The excitement of discovering something new and advancing scientific knowledge is what attracted me to research. My PhD research at Oxford University allowed me to continue researching viruses and their interaction with the body’s immune system.
E: Before starting out on your PhD what did you do, and did you always want to have a career in science?
L: Before starting my PhD, I studied Biomedical Sciences at UCL, where I completed a laboratory-based research project as part of my dissertation. My dissertation project investigated how HIV is detected by the immune system when it first invades cells. After graduating I continued to work in the same laboratory for a few months as a research assistant, before starting my PhD in Oxford. I always knew I wanted a career related to science. The initial reason I was motivated to do a PhD in medical science is because I had aspirations of working in public health in the future. During my PhD I have learnt so much and my aspirations have evolved. I realised that I have a passion for communicating science, and would like to pursue this as a career.
E: Since you have just written your thesis, do you have any tips from your writing process for those about to write up?
L: I absolutely love writing and very much enjoyed the process of writing my thesis. I started thinking about my thesis from the very beginning of my PhD and I would highly recommend planning out your chapters early on. My other top tip would be to stay on top of data analysis and figure generation, as this will make your life much easier when it comes to writing up. I am very grateful to my supervisor, who read my thesis and gave me useful feedback and would recommend this to other students if they have this option available.
E: Now you are finished with your PhD, you are going to pursue a career in science journalism, what attracted you to this career path?
L: Throughout my PhD I have been actively involved in various science communication and public engagement initiatives. During the penultimate year of my PhD, I undertook a short placement on the science desk at the Guardian newspaper in London. I had the opportunity to learn from experienced science journalist and publish a number of articles in the newspaper myself. This experience inspired me to pursue a career in science communication and journalism.
E: You were a BSA media fellow and a freelance writer for the guardian, can you talk a bit about this- what does this mean, how did you get the opportunity ect?
L: The British Science Association media fellowship scheme provides scientists with the opportunity to spend a period of time working at a well-known media outlet in the UK. I applied for this scheme during the penultimate year of my PhD and was given the fantastic opportunity to spend a month writing science articles for the Guardian. I also wrote an article as a correspondent at the British Science Festival in 2018 and a couple of articles as a freelancer. My BSA media fellowship was funded by the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) and, at the Guardian, I was mentored by Ian Sample and Hannah Devlin. This was a brilliant experience and I would highly recommend it to other researchers.
E: What was the best bit about your PhD, and what do you wish you had known about the PhD before you started out?
L: The best thing about doing a PhD is the excitement of discovering something new and working at the edge of scientific knowledge. During my PhD, I learnt that science is not only groundbreaking discoveries but also incremental advances. Before starting, I wish I had known that experiments do not give the expected results the vast majority of the time! Negative results are not worse than positive results. All experiments teach us something valuable.
Thank you so much Layal! I think a lot of people will find your career very inspiring, and I am sure this has provided a lot of people some ideas of where to look for some science writing opportunities!
I have linked to Layals’ articles throughout this post, but will also leave the links below for you to go check out! Also make sure to follow Layal on her twitter and Instagram to follow her career and also see some super cool videos of scientists at work!