Right now I’m doing my PhD in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath. In 2011 I did a MSc in Applied Bioinformatics at Cranfield University, and in 2010 I finished my BSc in Biotechnology at “Universidad Politecnica de Valencia” in Spain.
MSc in Applied Bioinformatics and BSc in Biotechnology
I’m working as a demonstrator in the University of Bath. A demonstrator helps the lecturer in the lab practical sessions. We help the students with any problem and explain them any doubts they have with the experiments they are doing in the lab. It’s a very rewarding job!
University of Bath, Department of Biology and Biochemistry
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love discussing about science with other people: scientists and non-scientists. I find really helpful to talk about my research with other scientists, because I can discuss other ways of doing my experiments, advice and tips with some technics, and new methods I could apply in my research. Moreover, I feel really inspired when I talk about my research with non-scientists, because I can feel the interest of my research, and the impact it has in the society. Also, they usually ask really interesting questions that I had never thought about before, which makes me understand better my research.
I’m trying to understand how the pigment cells that give colour to our skin, called melanocytes, develop from an embryo formed by the fusion of a sperm cell from your father and an egg cell from your mother, using a small fish called “zebrafish”.
Complex organisms (such as humans, mice or flies) are formed by millions of cells. But those cells are not all the same, they have divided into groups or families of cells, and each group is specialised in doing a certain function in the organism. Therefore, we have similar cells that work together to form the arteries that transport the blood throughout the organism, and other different cells that form the bones that give shape to the organism, for example.
Hence, organisms are formed by many different cell types that carry out specific functions, and are located in different places in the organism. But all of this diversity originates from a single cell embryo, formed by the fusion of a sperm and egg cells, which have a single set of genetic information (genome). So, how is it possible that with only one set of information, the single cell embryo develops so many different cells to create a complex organism? This is one of the key questions in Biology, and there is a whole discipline dedicated to answer it: Developmental Biology.
The aim of my research is to get a better understanding of the development of a single cell embryo into a complex organism formed by several different specialised cells. From all the different types of cells that form an organism, my research is focused on understanding the development of the pigment cells that give colour to our skin, called melanocytes, in the early stages of embryonic development, just after the egg cell has been fertilised by the sperm.
Melanocytes are pigment cells that have a brownish colour, and give the colour to our skin. Errors in the genes that regulate their behaviour make them to lose control, causing skin cancer (melanoma). Melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer, and it has difficult treatment. Therefore, understanding the genes that regulate the development of melanocytes and how they work is very important to figure out what makes a melanocyte become a cancer cell.
To understand the development of melanocytes we use zebrafish as a model organism, where we perform the experiments that we cannot do in humans. These little fish are very useful in research because they are cheap to grow and easy to maintain, their embryos are transparent which allows us to follow the melanocytes development without disturbing the fish, and also the adult fish produce lots of embryos when they mate which allows us to do the experiments using a high number of samples.
My Typical Day
My typical day usually involves taking care of the zebrafish, doing an experiment in the lab, analysing some results from previous experiments I’ve done, and going to seminars to keep updated with the research that other scientists are doing.
My day usually starts in the fish aquarium, where we have all the zebrafish. There, I have to collect the embryos from the zebrafish that I set up the night before. We have lots of adult fish in big tanks, and when I need embryos for my experiments I have to separate the fish from the big tanks, and put them in couples in smaller tanks for them to mate and lay eggs. I usually do this the evening before I need the embryos. Then, the fish couples are together all the night, and in the next morning the female lays eggs and the male releases the sperm, which fertilises the eggs creating embryos. Just after that, I collect the embryos for my experiments.
Once I have the embryos I need, I come back to the lab and start the experiments. They usually take more than one day, and there are many times where I have to incubate my embryos with some substances for a long time. I use that time to go to the computer in the office, and analyse some previous results, or to plan the next experiments I want to do. I can also use that waiting time to read scientific articles about the research that other groups are doing in my field, to get new ideas and learn new experimental techniques that I could use in my research. When the experiment with the embryos is done, I have to go to the microscope to take pictures of the results.
At lunchtime, we usually have seminars in the department, where scientists from other universities come to talk about their research and show their results. After the talk, we have the opportunity to ask them questions, which is very useful to ask all the doubts we have about their experiments.
After the seminars, I come back to the lab to follow my experiments and then, before going home, I go to the aquarium to set up the fish couples that I need to get embryos the following morning.
Some days, I also meet with my supervisor to discuss my results, and to plan the next experiments that I should do.
What I'd do with the prize money
I think the best way to inspire young people to become a scientist is to experience research first hand in a lab. However, it is difficult for students from underprivileged backgrounds to get an internship in a lab that could help them to get a place in a top university. Therefore, if I win I’d like to donate the prize to In2scienceUK, an organisation that provides lab placements for students from low income backgrounds.
In2scienceUK (http://in2scienceuk.org) is a non-profit organisation which provides placements for gifted A-level students from low income backgrounds. Students from underprivileged backgrounds and traditionally low achieving schools face major obstacles resulting in few pupils obtaining a place at top universities.
The scheme works to ensure that the brightest pupils have the opportunity to experience research science first hand, regardless of their wealth. Students work alongside scientists for a 2 week placement during the summer, giving students an insight into scientific research.
During the placement the student has the opportunity to work on cutting edge research with top scientists. They can learn a number of scientific techniques, attend workshops and complete a small written report. These placements will be highly valued by future employers and admissions tutors at centres of higher education, and will enable scientists to inspire the next generation.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Enthusiastic, Persistent and Friendly
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Scientists usually organise conferences to meet with other scientists in their field, and present and discuss their research. Usually in these conferences PhD students present a poster with the main results and findings of their research. I presented a poster for the first time in an international conference in Edinburgh and I won the first poster prize! It was great!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My A-level Biology teacher was passionate about biology and genetics, and she transmitted that passion to her students. She sparked on me the love for science and inspired me to study biology and then to become a researcher. So I guess that she’s the main reason why I’m a scientist!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I’m quite talkative. And sometimes in the school I was told off for chatting with my friends while the teacher was explaining something.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I love to find out about all the kind of stuff and try to find answers to challenging questions, so I think If I weren’t a scientist I’d probably be a journalist.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Muse and Mumford and Sons
What's your favourite food?
I love Spanish Paella and carrot cake
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I always have great fun when I go with friends on holiday. I especially remember when I went to Mexico after finishing my degree. I had the opportunity to see the great Mayan pyramids, and to snorkel in the Caribbean sea, where I could see wonderful fish. It was amazing!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) I would like weekends to last 3 days; 2) I’d like to live in the Caribbean; 3) I’d like to get another 3 wishes :P
Tell us a joke.
The majority of people have an above average number of legs.