PhD life at the IGMM…

…by Joshua / from the United Kingdom / PhD Genetics and Molecular Medicine / 2nd Year

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Hi, my name is Joshua, and I’m a PhD student at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, which is part of the University of Edinburgh. My project is investigating the biomolecular underpinnings of the illness myalgic encephalomyelitis (sometimes known as chronic fatigue syndrome) – ME/CFS. This is a poorly understood and severely debilitating illness that affects around 250,000 people in the UK. It has no known cure, a low recovery rate, and no reliable diagnostic test.

My project studies the immune system of patients with ME/CFS in an attempt to find something that might be useful as a biomarker, which would aid clinicians in their diagnosis. The study compares the T-cells of people with ME to the cells of people with other diseases and healthy controls. The basic idea is that when someone is attacked by an infection, a specific T-cell in their body clones itself repeatedly to form a small army of specialised cells. These then hunt down and destroy the source of the infection. Because of this, we can look at the blood of people with ME, and we expect to see that a large number of their T-cells are clones (whereas in healthy people we would expect to see very few clones). My study is done in collaboration with a group in Oxfordshire, who are sequencing these T-cell receptors in the lab.

My part of the project is focused on the analytics, as I studied mathematics and theoretical physics through to a master’s degree at the University of St Andrews. After my undergraduate studies, I decided I wanted to work on something more relevant than quantum theory, so I switched field to genetics. My work is computationally based, and I still get to study mathematics – mostly statistics – but I like how much more useful my work feels now.

Edinburgh is an amazing place, and I’ve had a great time since moving here. It has all the benefits of a small city (it’s very compact and walkable) with the outlook of an international capital. In particular, it becomes a completely different place over the summer – when the population trebles to three million people during the Fringe Festival. As postgraduate students are usually here year-round, I was able to enjoy something of a holiday at home – with all the benefits of a local perspective. I intend to come back up after visiting my family at Christmas to see my first New Year in Scotland – I’ve heard Hogmanay is even more fun than the summer here.

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My degree has allowed me to travel extensively while at Edinburgh. I was able to enrol onto a statistics programme that hosted residential courses at some of the best universities in the UK, and I have also attended conferences in London and Bristol. Our research group also went on retreat to a nearby castle for three days of planning and scientific discussion (with added archery and falconry!). The best trip so far though was the chance to attend a conference and workshop in Washington D.C. – but I’ll save that for a separate post.

In future blog posts, I’ll talk about my travels in more detail, and try to give you more of an insight into day-to-day life in Edinburgh and at the IGMM. Check back soon for more!


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