My PhD journey.

PhDLife. How to pick your PhD project.

Deciding to do a PhD is probably one of the biggest decisions you will ever make in your life! A substantial step up in both expectation and skill from undergrad, I am all too aware that the prospect at first is overwhelmingly daunting. But unfortunately no-one can make this decision for you! It is simply a journey that you need to need to begin with as much information as possible about your path as you can possibly gather at that time. That will put you at a huge advantage and I also hope that is one reason why you read my blog for other PhD advice and tips 😛

For me though, the most important step before embarking on the PhD journey is knowing  what you actually want to spend the next four plus years of your life trying to answer! Something that in theory it should be simple enough to work out, but in reality is much more difficult with the plethora of PhD projects on offer. Recently, I’ve been getting a few messages on Instagram from students finishing their undergrad and wanting to start a PhD who are looking for some advice. So I thought there must be others out there with similar questions so I thought I would share my advice with everyone else 🙂 So here it goes…


It needs to be the right topic!

Probably the easiest and most obvious place to start. If you are going to spend the next four plus years doing research trying to figure out the smallest of pieces of that particular puzzle then you are going to have to enjoy learning and studying about that field. There’s no use applying for PhDs in neuroscience if you have no interest in the brain or neurodegenerative diseases for example. But once you’ve decided on a field, you need to narrow down your interests further. So, if you are interested in neurobiology, are you more interested in finding treatments for Alzheimers or multiple sclerosis, or are you more interested in finding out more about brain stem cells work? The more specific your interests are, the easier it will be to find projects to apply for. However, saying that sometimes being too specific isn’t the best course of action either as trying to get a PhD is incredibly competitive so you might need to broaden your horizons in order to bag yourself that place.


Right topic, right supervisor!

Choosing a supervisor is tricky because you can’t really get to know a person until you start working with them and socialising with them – no matter how many emails you send and meetings you have. But having the right supervisor can make or break you as a PhD student.

But if you can’t get to know whether you will get on with a supervisor before you start your PhD, how on earth do you decide? Continuing from my last point, you have to start by choosing a problem that interests you, which may seem obvious but you will be amazed at how many students don’t do that. But to then get the most out of your supervisor during your PhD, you have to be interested in what they do. So you are already starting with something in common. My supervisor will take any opportunity to get out of the office and move down to the coffee room to talk about my results and what they mean, simply because they are so passionate about the topic. But it always devolves into more of a chat, but sometimes I learn just as much from these general chit chats than I do from just my research.

Your supervisor will be your mentor, your friend, your confidante, your adviser, your boss, your voice of reason, will always play devil’s advocate and probably several other roles. So, you need to make sure it is a voice you will want to hear for the next 4 years or more. They will be the ones encouraging you to pick that pipette straight back up again when your experiments fail yet again. They will be the ones to challenge that hypothesis you have just spent hours putting together. But they will be that driving force steering you and helping you getting over the finish line that is submitting your thesis.

Now I would say 99% of PhD supervisors are super busy. If you looked at their diaries, they have got meeting after meeting or are away on trips or writing grants plus much more, so how do they have the time to have a cuppa and a chat with me whenever it suits? To be honest, some supervisors only have 30 minutes for you every fortnight so it again depends on your needs and what suits you better, but unfortunately this isn’t something you can gauge over emails and interviews, which leads me nicely on to my next piece of advice.


Who else is in your lab squad?

Regardless of whether you see your supervisor once a day or once a fortnight, there will always be a group of guys and gals who you will see much more often who I have affectionately called your lab squad! This may be more senior PhD students, medics doing a research degree or lab technicians. They will be the ones to teach you all the things you need to know, show you the ropes for this lab, take you to the hottest spots in town and become an essential source of knowledge and tricks of the trade.

WHEN you get called to interview for your PhD, you must go on a lab tour. Usually this is part of the interview process, but if it isn’t ask before hand to be shown around the labs. But also ask if you can have a chat with the current students and lab group. Fit in around their schedules so if it means you have to arrive 2 hours before your interview or wait for an hour after your interview, do it! These guys and gals will be your source of insider info and give you a feel for whether you will fit into the lab and also whether you would get on with your potential supervisor in a day to day setting. Make sure you have a list of questions to ask your potential new lab squad as your time with them will be limited and precious, so I have thought of a couple to get you started:

What is best about this lab?

What opportunities are there for science communication?

Do you socialise outside?

How busy is the supervisor?

How much support do you get?

Have you been to any conferences or published?


Money, money, money!

Until you start studying for a PhD, I think most people don’t realise how expensive scientific research is – like one antibody can cost £200!! But you’ve got to think about where that money for your research is coming from and where the money is coming from that is going to allow you to live and eat and survive whilst you are studying.

So, how are you planning to fund your PhD programme? Are you going to be self-funded or are looking for a scholarship? If you are looking for a scholarship, do have a look at that will help you in search of exciting funding opportunities from the most prestigious universities in Europe. Applying for a scholarship is always a competitive process but it is certainly worth a try. Personally, there was going to be no chance that I would be able to self fund 4 years worth of money for PhD study so I only applied for funded positions. So, make sure you know what options are available to you and what that particular PhD you’re interested in is offering. It is no good  falling in love with a project that would need to be self funded when you don’t have the means to do it!


Location, location, location.

Where in the world are you going to study? Many students stay at the same university as they did their undergrad. This makes things easier as you already know the city and you might even know the lab squad and the supervisor which makes it easier to suss out whether you will fit in with that lab or not! Perhaps you want to be close to home, or perhaps you want to experience working in a lab abroad. On the other hand, if you don’t want to spend all of your 4 years of study in the United States for example but still want a flavour of international lab life – perhaps look for PhD projects that are linked between universities. For example, a girl in my lab has just spent 2 months in Hong Kong for her project and also a previous Scientist in the Spotlight Catia B was based in Portugal but is now spending her days working at MIT in Boston. These are all things you need to consider when thinking about applying for that PhD project.

For me, location wasn’t really an issue. As long as I could reach the motorway to get home relatively easily I would have gone wherever. The project was much more important for me!


Why do you want to do this?

Your motivation is an important factor that should guide you while searching for the right PhD programme. Also, you don’t instantly have to enrol in a PhD right after you have finished a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective and to figure out exactly what your interests are, in terms of a possible subject for your research. Many people opt for landing a job for a few years before going back to study and apply for a doctoral degree. But whichever path you took to reach the bottom of the PhD mountain, you have to know why you want to start this journey. A good idea would be to start asking yourself a few questions like:

Are you motivated by a subject interest or do you consider a PhD degree as a step towards developing your career?

Are you planning to work in academia afterwards and prefer to focus on developing research and teaching experience?

Or are you willing to develop your career in industry? In this case, you may search for the PhD programmes that involve collaboration with industry.

Whatever your motivation for doing a PhD, there will be one out there for you. I’m not going to lie, it is super competitive and you will have to do a lot of searching coupled with rejection after rejection after rejection! If you survive past this stage and get to accept a project, then you are already showing the resilience of a proper PhD student and the motivation to succeed no matter what gets in your way.



Picking the right PhD project for you is tough! There is so much to consider and even then you don’t want to be too picky because of how competitive it is to get accepted onto a program. But sink some hours into searching for that project, contact PhD supervisors or even your potential future lab squad members and ask as many questions as you can, but do remember these people are busy and allow them time to get back to you, and always be applying to multiple projects – don’t just apply to one and wait for the outcome even if it is your dream project. It is something that constantly needs to be fine tuned and adjusted and worked at, but all that time and effort will pay off in the end.


Are you studying a PhD and have some other advice about how to pick the right PhD project?? Then please share in the comments below.

Science love.


Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.

Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Sofia M.

June is somehow here already! But it has brought some stunning weather with it as it is gorgeous outside today here in the south of England! And as we all know by now, a new month means it is time for me to introduce to you another incredible scientist and put them under my spotlight!

And June 2017 is the turn of another of my gorgeous PhD course mates, Sofia M. Sofia is our very own ‘Angel of the North’ coming from Lancaster in the North West of England, but has some of that Italian fire running through her veins as her grandparents all moved here from Italy. Sofia and I started our PhD journeys at the same time but once again took completely different paths as her research looks at studying cell signalling in immune cells using proteomics – so basically looking at how are immune cells communicate with each other my looking at ALL the proteins in those cells! This Northern girl is fun and outgoing, loves a good gossip with her friends and is always keen for socialising!




Tell us a bit about your science journey.

Sofia: I studied Biomedical Sciences at Newcastle University for my undergrad before coming down south to do my PhD. My PhD is in cancer immunology but using proteomics to study protein regulation and signalling in lymphocytes. In particular, I am looking at how Fc receptors; the receptors that bind antibodies, signal and communicate!


Why did you choose to study science?

Sofia: My best and favourite subjects at school were always biology, chemistry and maths, so a career in science was always natural for me. My insporation for doing a PhD came in my final year of my undergrad when I was doing my dissertation lab project. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in but I absolutely loved my project. It was definitely the highlight of my undergraduate degree.



What have you been up to in the lab most recently then?

Sofia: I did a big proteomics experiment earlier in the year so I have been doing lots of data analysis and stats recently – lots of clicking at a computer basically! But I am starting to validate my results with techniques like flow cytometry and Western blotting.


Doing a PhD is different for everyone so tell us a bit more about yours – what’s the most valuable, memorable and unexpected moments of your PhD?

Sofia: My most memorable moment so far would definitely be passing my transfer viva. I had spent so long re-analysing data and writing my transfer thesis that I as so relieved and proud to have finally finished that stage! There aren’t really any guidelines or standard ways of analysing proteomics data so my most valuable lesson so far is learning how to make my own decisions and trusting my own judgement as a scientist. My whole PhD journey has not been what I expected but one thing that comes to mind is that proteomics means far more data analysis and stats than I was expecting and my project has changed quite a bit since the start. But I have definitely loved the journey though!



What advice would you give your first year PhD self if you were going to start this journey all over again then?

Sofia: Be assertive. You could probably look at a list of 10,000 proteins forever but you’d be an idiot if you did. And also, there will definitely be days when you want to just give up but persevere and you will get there!


Outside lab life, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Sofia: I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a foodie. I absolutely love cooking, baking, big dinners with friends and going out to eat in new restaurants. I’m attempting to learn Italian too. It’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t speak Italian to my relatives, plus I’d love to travel round Italy for a month when I finish my PhD. Sometime though it can be difficult to balance a social life with lab life, especially when I’m running samples on the mass spec machine and need to be ready at any hour to go and fix a problem, so I try to keep my weekends free to visit friends and family or go for days out and do all this stuff I love! Because it is so important to have a social life and holidays planned and to look forward to after a long day of data analysis.


What’s next for you after your PhD?

Sofia: Well, I have a placement at the end of the year at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage so my goal is to learn as much as I can whilst I’m there. After that I’d really like to stay working in immunology if I can. Hopefully my placement at GSK will give me an insight into working in industry as at the moment I think industry will be my next step.


And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?

Sofia: This is so difficult! There are so many amazing places to go! But my top 3 places that you must see before you die are:

  1. Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We went for the sunrise and it was amazing! There are loads of different temples to see, so you can spend all day there! This includes the Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm which has been taken back by the earth and has trees growing out of it.
  2. Halong Bay in Vietnam. I took the photo below on a crappy digital camera and it still looks incredible! We stayed on a boat overnight in the bay and it was such a great experience.
  3. And finally, Mexico! I have just come back from Mexico and definitely recommend going to Chichen Itza. It is breathtaking! There are a couple of ecological waterparks there too where you can swim with stingrays and barracudas.

angkor wat

Halong Bay Vietnam

chichen itza


Huge thank you to Sofia for taking time out of staring at a computer analysing your data to… sit down in front of a computer and answer some questions I had :p and sharing your scientist life with us!

I am loving your idea of travelling Italy. Another Italian roadtrip is what I want to do too but this time I want to do the North of the country and go from Venice, through the lakes and mountains, to Milan and Turin – so if you go I’ll be asking for some tips! You probably have all the inside info of the best places to go in that beautiful country from your relatives but if you need some ideas then you can check out what I got up to on my mini Italian roadtrip! We should also catch up soon! It’s been far too long as I am awful at balancing lab life and a social life! But maybe we can check out some cool new restaurants to broaden my food horizons 🙂


This is the third scientist that I work with that I have showcased along with Lisa and Jordana, and I am going to keep showing off the amazing people that I work with – because if I don’t, who will 😛

Follow Sofia’s life in the lab and around the globe by following her on Instagram and to check out what culinary delights she has been whipping up and sampling lately. If you have any questions for Sofia about life in or outside of the lab please write them in the comments below 🙂

Science love.


Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.

Scicomm & Science writing

How YOU can read a scientific paper. Part Two.

I’ll start with a question to YOU the public:

How can scientists improve how they communicate their research with you?


From Part One of ‘How YOU can read a scientific paper’, you should now know what a scientific paper is, why they exist and what parts they are made up of! I also set you a challenge to try reading your first scientific paper. Did you give it a go?

I am all too aware myself of the time and effort it takes someone to read a scientific paper – you have to make sure quite quickly that it is something that you are interested in and will benefit your knowledge because you don’t want to be wasting time on something that is going to be no good for you, plus you need to check out any words or phrases you don’t understand, plus you need to actually think about what the results are showing you to see if you agree with what the author thinks plus much more. And that is for a scientist who supposedly reads these things all the time! But with the majority of science funding coming from the public we should be showing off our results to them don’t you think?

A scientific paper is something that all research scientists want to get and something we should be proud of and be able to share with the entire world and not just the entire scientific world. But I am sure you will all agree, that no matter how much advice and tips I share about how to read and understand a scientific paper, a non-scientist is going to struggle and not going to want to spend all that time for the gain of some very specific information, albeit it being new exciting data. So, I feel that we as scientists have a duty to share our research with the public and make them care and understand what we have achieved and what we want to achieve. Just sharing the  link to your latest paper though is not going to suffice! So what can we as scientists do?


Throughout the year, there are hundreds of different science festivals that you can go along to and talk about science with the public. You can even go to music festivals like Glastonbury to talk about science. The problem I find with these opportunities is that they have limited spaces so the chances to go along are hard to come by and sometimes you are going along as part of a team and you are talking about science in a more general capacity – which is great to get people interested – but it isn’t showing the research that you have done and published in your high impact journal – most of the time!

Some scientists like to write science blogs about different science news headlines, what it is like to be a scientist and advice for wannabe  and current PhD students, but some also do ‘journal clubs’ where they do the hard work for you and break down a scientific paper and give you the information you need like these for example by Biomech_Dave. This is an idea I LOVE – and it gave me an idea so you can use your new found skills from Part One and use them as part of Soph’s Science Club – my upcoming new blog feature, or perhaps YouTube feature, where I break down new scientific papers for you so stay tuned for that! Anyway, the problem with these ideas is getting your science blog out there to the public. I can honestly say the hardest bit of writing a science blog is making sure people read it and more importantly, people come back to reading it. In my 11 months of being a committed science blogger, I have grown a small following through social media platforms which I will be forever grateful for, but currently I’m not speaking to the masses – yet! So, if there’s a super cool headline in the news recently like this one about ‘space sperm’ and you wanted to share the original paper in a fun and engaging blog post, the likelihood is not many people will see it and understand where the headline came from.


So, I seem to be putting every idea out there and then finding a problem with it – sorry that’s just my scientist brain! But there must be a way that a non scientist can get the information they want quickly and it being from the original source rather than risk the media reporting of it being slightly skewed! And I think I came across the answer a few weeks ago….

Video abstracts.


We know from Part One what an abstract is. It is the summary of the scientific paper and tells you what the authors did and what they found out amongst some other information. But it is just reading words on a screen or a piece of paper. What if we could make those words come to life and be more engaging? I think the video abstract is the way forward.

Now I have been reading scientific papers for about 7 years or so now and never before had I seen a video abstract until a few weeks ago when someone shared it on Twitter and it came up in my feed. I got ridiculously excited thinking it was this new craze for sharing your research with the scientist and non scientist community. But upon further investigation, it seems like this has been around for a few years and I have just missed it! Especially when one of those high impact journals I mentioned before, Cell, have a whole YouTube channel dedicated to these abstracts that was launched in 2009! But it has made me question why we as scientists haven’t been making more of this great way of communicating your research!


It is probably because scientists don’t have the time to be making videos amongst everything else and generally speaking probably don’t have the best video making and editing skills. And then there are only a handful of journals that accept video abstracts so why should we spend time making one if it is not widely accepted! Plus how many non scientists actually read abstracts of scientific papers if that is who we are targeting with these videos? Perhaps I am fighting a losing battle.

It might become a passing fad and trend but I for one am going to try and make video abstracts to share with the public, even if it is just going to be on my own YouTube channel. There is a way of conveying your results that can be done in a video that is far easier to understand than trying to write about it in a normal abstract. That’s got to be a plus right? And I really think we need to target the public more and there is no better way of doing that than through the media.

I open the floor to you. I want to know whether you’re a scientist or not and what your thoughts on video abstracts would be! Let me know in the comments!

But I also have another challenge for you to see how you feel about video abstracts. Follow this link and read the title of the article and then read the written abstract. Google the few words you are not familiar with and then come back to me after you have read it.

How much did you really understand??

Now follow this link and watch their video abstract.


Yes there are probably still words and phrases that you’re not sure about as I’m not expecting all of you to be epigenetic experts. But is the overall picture a bit clearer than when you just read their written abstract? It definitely was for me.

If we want to make scientific research more accessible to all, then maybe video abstracts is the next logical step and it needs to be made more of when submitting a paper to a journal.


I started with a question, so I’ll finish with another for YOU the public:

Would you be more likely to read scientific papers if there was a video abstract?



Let me know your thoughts on video abstracts whether you are a scientist or a non scientist or if you have any other bright ideas about getting more scientific papers into the eyes of the public!

Science love.


Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Scicomm & Science writing

How YOU can read a scientific paper. Part One.

Every so often on the news, you will read or hear the words ‘Scientists have discovered…’ or ‘a group from [insert country here] have reported this effect with their new cancer drug’ for example.

But have you ever thought – where do all these science headlines come from?

The answer.

The scientific paper.


Now I want my blog to be for everyone – that includes tips and advice for my fellow PhD students and science news and insights into a scientific life and much more for YOU the general public too! I want everyone to learn something when they visit my blog, but most of all I want to help make scientific research more accessible to non-scientists – even if it is only a little bit. So other than introducing you to different techniques and things I get up to in the lab from time to time as well as showcasing many awesome scientists from around the world to break down the associated stereotype – I thought that maybe I could introduce you to different aspects of the scientific world. So there is no better place to start than with something that all scientists aspire to achieve – the publication!


To a lot of you who are reading this article, the thought of a scientific paper is perhaps a little bit alien to you or even slightly terrifying, but I hope that by the end of Part One of this guide you will know what a scientific paper is, where you can find them and how you can read them – even with non scientific background!

Plus I’m in the process of writing my very first scientific paper and I think it would be super cool if you could all read it if and when it gets accepted so I can actually talk about my research in more detail with you guys then 😛 !

So let’s get stuck in!


First of all, what is a scientific paper?

The world of scientific research is a competition. A race to the finish line where you have to be the winner – as there are no prizes for being the second one to have this new idea or prove some new mechanism! So most of your research careers, you are sworn to secrecy about the details of what you are actually doing  in the lab until your scientific paper is accepted and you can share your research with the rest of the scientific world!

Scientific papers are the heart of the science community; they’re one of the major ways scientists communicate their results and ideas to one another, and contain the most up to date information about a field – obviously depending on the date of publication!

So, a scientific paper is an article that is bringing together all those experiments you have been doing in the lab for the past 2 or 3, or even for the past 10 years to so, and making one complete story, and the proof that you have shown what you said you have!

There are two main types of scientific paper; the primary research article, which is a report of new research about a specific question and the one I’m going to talk about in more detail in this post, and the review article, which don’t present new information but are a summary of multiply primary research papers to give a sense of consensus and unanswered questions within a particular topic at that time.


Where will I find scientific papers?

These manuscripts get published in scientific journals, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these out there! Some are  very specific in the articles they publish like the Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Research is only going to publish articles about that topic for example, whereas others are for a more broad audience. Each journal also has what we call an impact factor – which is based upon how many times the articles published in that journal get quoted or cited elsewhere and of course, more people will see it – hence the ‘impact’! So for example, the more specific journals out there are going to have lower impact factors generally speaking compared to the broader ones as there are going to be fewer people interested in a smaller niche. As a scientist you want to get your paper published in a journal with the highest impact factor you can, so for me in the field of biology I am aiming for the likes of Cell and Nature.


Why bother reading scientific papers?

So before I venture much further into this, I feel I need to try and make you care a little bit about why you should even bother reading these in the first place – except that you all obviously want to read my upcoming paper hah!

I started off this blog post by introducing media headlines that you heard as a result of these papers. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding how accurately the media reports science and scientific discoveries. Now I am not saying that what you hear as you watch the evening news is wrong – it just might not be the complete truth sometimes! So I am a huge advocate for teaching everyone how to find the original source of these headlines and understanding them so you, the general public, can make your own informed opinions about science 🙂

Also, a huge amount of scientific research is funded by the public so surely it is only right to show you what we have done with that money right?


What will you find in a scientific paper?

Each scientific paper is split into 6 sections which each have a unique purpose. They are the abstract, the introduction, the materials and methods section, the results, the discussion and the references.


The abstract is a summary of the entire paper. It usually highlights the main question or questions the authors investigated, provides the key results of their experiments, and gives an overview of the authors’ conclusions. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the article was what you were looking for, or not, without spending a long time reading the whole paper. Abstracts are usually accessible for free either online at journals’ websites or in scientific literature databases.


As the name suggests, the introduction gives background information about the topic of the paper, but also sets out the specific questions to be addressed by the authors. The quantity and thoroughness of the background information will depend on both the author and the guidelines for that specific journal.

Reading the introduction is a test of whether or not you are ready to read the rest of the paper; if the introduction doesn’t make sense to you, then the rest of the paper won’t either as the paper is bringing new information to build on what you have read in the introduction. If you find yourself baffled by the introduction, try going to other sources for information about the topic before you tackle the rest of the paper. Good sources can include a textbook; online tutorials, reviews, or explanations; or one of those review articles I mentioned earlier.

Materials and Methods

The ‘How to’ manual of the scientific paper. The materials and methods section gives the technical details of how the experiments were carried out, including the types of controls used, how long each experiment took and where unusual resources (like a bacterial strain or a publicly available data set) were obtained. Reading the methods section is helpful in understanding exactly what the authors did.

You might recognise a few experiments like Western blotting or Immunocytochemistry when you read your first paper and if you have read my blog posts before, so it might not be as scary as you think!



The results section is the real meat of a primary research article; it contains all the data from the experiments. The figures, or pictures, contain the majority of the data. The accompanying text contains verbal descriptions of the pieces of data the authors feel were most critical. The writing may also explain how the new data fits in with the previous findings you read about in the introduction. So, to get the most out of the results section, make sure to spend ample time thoroughly looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables, and reading their accompanying description underneath the figure telling you what all the graphs and numbers mean called a legend!


The discussion section is the authors’ opportunity to give you their opinions. It is where they draw conclusions about the results. They may choose to put their results in the context of previous findings and offer theories or new hypotheses that explain the body of knowledge in the field. Or the authors may comment on new questions and avenues of exploration that their results give rise to. The purpose of discussion sections in papers is to allow the exchange of ideas between scientists. As such, it is critical to remember that the discussions are the authors’ interpretations and not necessarily facts. However, this section is often a good place to get ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field.


Throughout the article, the authors will refer to information from other papers. These citations – which I mentioned earlier when talking about impact factor – are all listed in the references section, sometimes referred to as the bibliography. Both review articles and primary research articles, as well as books or other relevant sources, can be found in the references section. Regardless of the type of source, there will always be enough information (authors, title, journal name, publication date, etc.) for you to find the source at a library or online. This makes the reference section incredibly useful for broadening your own reading. If you’re reading a paragraph in the current paper and want more information on the content, you should always try to find and read the articles cited in that paragraph.


How do I read a scientific paper?

Anyone can read a scientific paper, you just have to know how!

Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process than reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they’re presented, but you should also probably take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers from the citations for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first, especially if you’re not a scientist. But be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience – that’s if you want to try it again after the first experience!

You should definitely give reading a scientific paper a go, but reading these things is a bit of a chore even for an experienced eye, so watch out for Part Two where I want to discuss new ways of making them more understandable to everyone! But for now, please stick with me when I introduce a step by step guide of how to read a scientific paper if you are a non-scientist, or perhaps even if you are!

Step 1: Identify vocabulary you don’t understand!

Scientific papers are full of jargon so you are probably going to have to write down every single word that you don’t understand and then you’re going to have to look them all up! Yes, I know it is a huge pain but you won’t understand the paper if you don’t understand the vocabulary! Books or obviously Google would be a good place to start or even YouTube as there are hundreds of really cool videos out there explaining different scientific concepts!

Step 2: Read the Introduction before anything else!

This is going to give you the background of the topic. If this part doesn’t interest you then, the new data that is part of this paper is not going to interest you either. It will also help you identify the BIG question that the scientists are answering. Again, if that doesn’t take your fancy then it is not worth your time and effort understanding and reading the paper!

Step 3: Tackle the results section!

Only once you are comfortable with the background information are you ready to give reading the results a try! Again there are going to be units and numbers you are not familiar with but you can look at the graphs and see if levels have gone up or down in response to certain conditions and get a feel for this new exciting research! Try to draw your own conclusions from what you saw and think about what it means when you compared it to everything you read in the introduction.

Step 4: Time to read the discussion.

You have made your own conclusions now! Do they match up with the authors’? Take a read to see what they make of their results. But for people just entering the field, discussions are a good place to get a glimpse of what the current competing theories and hypotheses are.

These are truly some very basic steps for absolute beginners in reading scientific papers! There is going to be a lot of other jargon like stats and p values and asterisks across the graphs and the words ‘statistically significant’ that probably won’t mean a lot to you either. But in truth, they probably don’t matter for a non scientist trying to get to grips with just reading about some research.



Now I’m not going to lie – reading a scientific paper is quite overwhelming even for the most experienced of researchers but this is where we need to change that so the public can find the information they want to as well because lets face it not everyone will understand the jargon. So I’ve recently stumbled across a different idea for these online papers – not sure how long it has been going on but it was the first I saw of it a few weeks ago. And I thought it was a great idea and can definitely make the scientific paper more comprehensible for the general public – especially when I believe it is a scientists duty to be able to explain what they have done and why they have done it to anyone they meet on the street! So, stick around for part 2 of How YOU can read a scientific paper to learn about new ways of digesting these manuscripts without all the jargon!

If you are a non-scientist reading my blog, I have a challenge for you! Please just have a go at reading a scientific paper – or maybe just try a review article first like this one or simply the introduction of a paper like this one! You don’t need to understand it completely and I don’t want you doing it for hours and hours. But just have a look at one or two and get a feel for it! Please let me know in the comments how you found it or contact me on my various social media channels! Let me know what it is that was daunting or what it is that you didn’t understand so we as scientists can think of new ways to make it easier for the public to understand what we are doing! One exciting way I’ve spotted recently will be discussed in Part Two of ‘How YOU can read a scientific paper‘!

Science love.


Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


My PhD journey.

PhDLife. How to get your focus back.

Hello science lovers!

I am back 🙂 But firstly I want to say a HUGE thank you to my awesome guest bloggers Heidi GBri LAlice G and Laura M for holding down the Soph talks science fort whilst I was away on holiday. If you missed their blogs, then please do catch up on them – they are so varied featuring some PhD advice, a day in the life of a PhD student, a cellfie and some science you can do at home with a little Fantastic Beasts treasure hunt – so there is something for everyone! Also, I am always open to collaborate with people on scicomm projects and always looking for guest bloggers so please do not hesitate to get in contact.


Anyway, back to today’s blog! So, there’s been a bit of radio silence on the blog front recently from me due to my holiday, then getting over jet lag plus it was bank holiday here in the UK so I gave myself that day off too! I was back in the lab for 2 weeks where I was furiously trying to get those last few results for my first ever manuscript and then I had another week off for a friend’s hen weekend in Spain plus the Pint of Science festival last week! All in all – it has been a bit of a hectic few months really with no routine in place. But that is just life! Sometimes it gets in the way of science hah! and you just need to embrace the time out of the lab and enjoy yourself!

Today marks the start of a new phase for me where I can get back into my routine and set aside my writing time to keep up to date with all my blogs and my Instagram posts and a new science vlog venture that I want to experiment with – plus all my actual lab work of course! But sometimes not having that routine for a while makes getting back into the saddle more complicated than perhaps it should be!

Now you’re up to date on what has been happening in Soph’s Science World – it’s time to get back to it and introduce why I’m writing about getting your focus back in the lab – which you can probably already guess considering I’ve barely been in the lab over the last 6 weeks!


The path to the top of the PhD mountain is not a straight forward easy one. Instead it is full of peaks and gullys combined with episodes of increased pressure from the increasing altitude as you crawl towards the summit! I know – not painting doing a PhD in very good light with that description! But this is unfortunately the case! Sometimes along this journey, you take the wrong turn and have to re-trace your steps or you simply choose the wrong path and get completely lost. This is completely normal for PhD life – in fact I would be in utter shock if someone managed to stay along the same path with no hiccups for four whole years in the UK, or even up to seven years if you are studying for your PhD in the US! So there is no need to panic if you are feeling confused or completely unmotivated whilst studying for your PhD at any point along the trek and it is perfectly okay to need to stop for a while as you climb that mountain! All you need to do is learnt the best ways for you to get back on track and regain that focus again afterwards!


Recently, I have found myself just staring at my To Do Lists (yes lists!) at my desk trying to plan this week’s and next week’s experiments. It was all there in front of me, but I was so confused about what I had done, what needed prioritising and even what needed doing for my paper and for my final thesis that my thoughts just became a complete muddled mess.

It was driving me insane! I felt like I had lost track of where I was with different ideas and experiments piling up and it gave me an idea for this blog post – How to get your focus back! I needed the advice myself and made a mini plan of action that might help me and it worked for me so I thought I would share in case any of you are suffering with the same issues.

So when we have lost track of our PhD path, how can we get motivated and focused again? Here are my 5 top tips for regaining your PhD motivation and focus:

  1. Organise a meeting with your supervisor

This was the first thing I did! I’ve written and passed my PhD transfer 6 months ago now. In that thesis, I had a plan for the rest of time as a PhD student which I am on track for 🙂 but sometimes the results you get in science take you in a different direction to what you thought – which is partially my case. Some of my results have revealed something quite interesting that we didn’t expect and I’m trying to get to the bottom of that on top of the other plans I had. So, I just wanted to sit down with my supervisor and tell them what results I do have, and what results are in the  process of being finalised so we can work out what needs to come first and what we can do after that has been completed.

I love these little meetings we have because its not just talking about each individual experiment, but it’s discussing what my results could mean and how I can go about proving that. We sit and work out what the bigger picture is too and where my research fits into this big wide world of science – which I love doing! I find this really helps me to focus again and makes you realise why you are doing this!

At the end of these meetings, there is usually a huge whiteboard full of drawings and arrows and notes until we have that final picture – which I then make a note of in my notebooks before it gets rubbed off and I’m back to square one! The picture where we know where each result fits with the other one and what gaps there still are to fill in! I don’t know why but it gives me a huge buzz and inspires me and motivates me to want to fill in those gaps ASAP. So that’s why whenever I get a little lost, this is my first port of call to regain focus!

2. Keep lab book up to date

I’m usually quite good at this but being super busy and working long lab days one after the other just results in me getting further and further behind sometimes. It is probably one of the reasons I lost my focus to begin with – all those Western blots I was doing were merging into one and I couldn’t for the life of me remember which ones I had done, which I had samples for and had not got round to yet and ones that I just needed more samples for.

It was all a bit of a mess and my results were piling up without actually having written them in my lab book! Plus I had all the other experiments I was doing to complicate it even further. It eventually reaches a point where you have to spend the whole working day and sometimes even longer just writing up your lab book – and then you are not getting any experiments done!

My best advice is taking that 10-20 minutes at the end of each day to write it all in! Even if it does mean you’ll be home closer to 7pm than 6pm. This is always what I have tried to do but as you can tell sometimes it just isn’t what you want to do at the end of the day – but it definitely is the best way to do it!


3. Plan a break or a holiday

Okay so I’ve told a tiny little lie. I was feeling like I had lost my focus about a month or two ago and actually wanted to get a plan sorted before I went away on my planned holidays so I wouldn’t be thinking about it whilst I was away. I know most people probably would want to get away and then deal with what they left upon their return. But whichever way is best for you, taking a holiday or just simply taking a day or week off work will work wonders!

Unfortunately though I don’t think I can use this advice right now 😦 Although I would love to get away again and have already been looking at flight prices for my next destination. I might have to wait a while for that next adventure though.

But with the amount of time I have had out of the lab recently, I have been able to complete recharge my batteries and this morning (if you can believe me) I was actually excited and keen to get into the lab and finish off those results for my manuscript. I’m keeping everything crossed that it will all be done my the end of this week – but it is science at the end of the day and it might take me a little bit longer – but I’m keeping my hopes up! The break away has given me a clear mind on what experiments to prioritise and just re-energised my love for what I do! So if you need a break – the best thing to do is just take one!



4. Make a list of the experiments you need to do next

For me – it is 10 times easier to get your focus back if everything you need to do is written out in front of you. I usually make these lists after the meeting with my supervisor so I know what they want me to do and so I have a feel for which ones are more important and so need prioritising.

My life gets a little bit more complicated as I’m currently working with 3 different cell lines so I have a list for each one. On my list is the result I need and then under it all the experiments I need to do to complete that including Bradford assays and how many more samples I need to collect for that particular experiment.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m a bit of a organisation freak and so they are colour coordinated for experiments were I need to image my cells, experiments that are just for my thesis and experiments that need prioritising to put in the paper and so on. If you looked at my list, it probably looks a mess – but it is my organised chaos of lab life!

That is obviously what works best for me, but making a simple list and maybe then ordering them so you know which ones need to be done first may be the way for you! It also shows you that it can all be broken down into small manageable chunks too that are not overwhelming anymore! But I would definitely recommend having that list so you can see what you need to do, but more importantly you get the satisfaction of ticking it off once you’ve done it!


5. Ask yourself two very important questions.

My final piece of advice for getting your motivation back is more of a reflection where I want you to ask yourself:

What do I want to achieve?

And why am I doing this?

For me, reviewing your long term goals and aspirations every so often along this PhD journey is a real motivator. You actually realise what you have accomplished so far and how you can achieve your goals! Knowing that in about 18 months I will (hopefully!) be Dr Arthur and I would have placed one or maybe two pieces into the jigsaw that is the biological world will be more than worth it that all those low moments with zero motivation will be long forgotten! Plus just think of all the doors that will be open to you once you have reached the top of that PhD mountain!

So just sit there and think for a few minutes! Reflect on what you have achieved so far during your PhD study and then use that to inspire what you can achieve in the time you have left on this journey. I assure you that all those little experiments in the lab do mount up into a much bigger picture and they will not be time wasted!


I hope after reading that you feel a little bit more inspired and motivated to head back to the lab tomorrow and just crack on! I know I am!

Some of you must be studying or have finished your PhD and lost your way a little bit at some point! How did you get back on track? Please share your advice in the comments below so we can all make this PhD journey a little easier for each other.


Science love.


Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Sasha W.

I know I must seem like I go on and on about the awesome scicomm community that inspired me to properly get stuck into and properly committed to my Soph talks science blog – I must say it every time I write one of these posts! But I come across new and inspiring male and female scientists across Twitter and Instagram every single day! Each has a unique science story, but the same goal – to make science more accessible to the public. Despite that same goal, every incredible scientist I meet has a different way of trying to achieve that goal and it gives me more ideas of how to get my blog out there more or even just different ways of talking to you about science. I try to learn from them every single day!

My Scientist in the Spotlight for May is no exception. She was not in the first handful of scicomm enthusiasts that I came across on Instagram, but a very close second. Despite this, I am always checking up on her phenomenal page to see what awesome science she is getting involved in and how she is sharing that with the world. And even though we have never met in person and the slight distance problem with her being in Canada – we are often chatting about PhD life and life in general in an attempt to keep each other on this rocky path that is the PhD journey! So, please let me introduce to you the PhDenomenal PhDemale herself, Sasha W.


Sasha is currently studying a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Toronto where her research asks the question ‘How to train your viral assassin!’ Bacteriophages are viruses that kill bacteria, and Sasha’s research is looking at how they work and grow by assembling specific protein components can help fight infections. But outside of the lab, Sasha is a normal twenty-something alike any other ‘millennial’ trying to learn, explore and do her best! This ambitious and positive gal can often be found advocating for women in science, talking about science or getting creative – or possibly all at the same time 🙂 Her instagram account @phdenomalphdemale is one way that she mixes those three things together and is the one way that inspired me. The first thing that hit me from Sasha’s account was how creative scientists could be, and secondly how glam this 6 foot beauty was even in a lab coat 🙂 So I will continue to spread the girl power and introduce you to Sasha 🙂


Start off my telling us a bit more about your science journey.

Sasha: I got into research because I liked science! In high school, I excelled in biology, I loved drawing the figures in my notes and using all my coloured pens to emphasise molecular pathways and was quite proud when my classmates wanted to photocopy my notes. This was a fun way for me to grasp the material and develop a greater understanding and appreciation of science. I took sciences in university, which was a bit challenging the first year, but once I got to major in courses I found  interesting, I became more focused, got better grades and became excited for the potential of pursuing graduate school. Today, my PhD research focuses on studying how proteins can regulate the mechanism of bacteriophage assembly so hopefully we can find a way to kill bad bacteria that harm human health. This means I use techniques such as NMR to look at the intricate workings of a molecule. How a protein folds, what it binds to, the temperature it works at and so much more are tiny details that can have a large impact. For instance, the bacteriophage is the most abundant entity on the planet. They are invisible to the naked eye, but if you lined them up end to end, the phage could reach the distance of the moon and back. So it’s incredibly exciting that these small entities and their even smaller protein components can be understood, and in doing so, their applications can have serious positive effects on our health care.


What have you been up to in the lab most recently?

Sasha: Currently I am in the middle of my 4th year of PhD. Most recently, I have been working through some trial and error, attempting to obtain data on the molecular mechanisms of the proteins working together. As I reach the ‘senior PhD’ stage, I am working more independently to learn about a variety of techniques and experiments to apply to my project. This requires lots of literature searching, lots of long hours actually performing the new experiments and talking to my peers and supervisors for new ideas.


As a more senior PhD student now, what are your essentials to surviving grad school?

Sasha: Survival skills? Don’t be afraid to ask questions! When I started graduate school, I was scared to ask questions because I didn’t want to seem unwise in the eyes of my peers and my supervisors. However, as I have progressed I have learned that all of us have to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything about every facet of science – that is why there are so many specialists in so many fields! However, it’s not okay for someone to make you feel stupid because at one point in time, that person probably had the same question as you. If you feel your question is too elementary, do a bit of preliminary research online first and then approach the ‘big-wigs’ – they truly are happy to help. Graduate school is just that – school! You are here not because you know everything but because you want to learn and grow and apply that knowledge to complex problems in the world. And sometimes asking questions can save you a lot of time if you just knew that assay was supposed to be done at room temperature and not on ice!


What’s your most memorable moment of your PhD so far?

Sasha: Getting into my PhD was a big one. Since I transferred from an MSc, I had to do a big oral exam and was pretty, well, terrified. But then, when I got accepted – it was like ‘okay, someone believes in me, I can do this’. Another one is winning ‘Best Oral Presentation’. Although this may be a small feat for some, for me, public speaking was something I was terrified of in elementary and high school. So as a graduate student, I took a class at university, specifically orientated to graduate students who similarly struggle with public speaking. That class opened my eyes to a lot of tips for public speaking and more importantly, to the fact that other graduate students are similarly not confident about public speaking. So, after completing the course, when I went out to do my next presentation – in front of about 200 of my peers and faculty – and I won ‘best talk’, I was very proud. It was a way to say I had conquered something I was fearful of – basically my Elle Woods getting into law school moment!


So, outside of the lab, what sparked your interest in starting your Instagram page @PhDenomalPhDemale?

Sasha: My Instagram focuses on women in science who are just as awesome in their own unique way. Having so many discussions with my peers, students, and family and friends about being a female scientist made me realise that this is something I want to talk about and help change the stereotype. We all know the statistics about women in science, and in my own way, I wanted to serve as a small part to encourage girls to be interested in science and motivate women like myself to stay in science. I thought, ‘if I am already lucky enough to be inspired by some kick-ass female scientists, then why not share their stories and tell as many people as I can about them so they can be inspired too?’


You mention some kick ass female scientists, but who are your science role models?

Sasha: You – Sophie! My PI and faculty at the university, my lab mates, Science.Sam and all the other awesome science bloggers!


Coming back to your Instagram posts, how do you decide what goes into a specific post?

Sasha: Every PhDenomenal PhDemale is unique, just like every woman is unique. It’s 2017, so we don’t have to abide by any rules dictating what it means to be a woman or a scientist. That being said, I like to highlight one PhDenomenal PhDemale a month, showcase her science, her experience and her hobbies. When I started in science, I couldn’t find a woman out there who I could relate to! And now? With this awesome growing community of females in STEM and an increased willingness for and acceptance for diversity of women in STEM, I now feel like I have many women with who I can relate to. So that’s what I hope to share through the stories of the PhDenomenal PhDemale and my own scientific life – that these women who are real people are people that girls can look up to and who women can relate to.


What other scicomm related activities are you involved in?

Sasha: A big one coming up is the first ever Soapbox Science event here in Canada, being held in my city Toronto. I am, along with 11 other female scientists from different fields, going to literally stand on a soapbox in the biggest square in the city and talk about science. Stay tuned on how it turns out!


Why is scicomm so important to you?

Sasha: To me, scicomm is important to bridge the gap between scientists and everyday life. To me, scientists are alike any curious person, except that they will have spent time indulging in that curiosity in a formal manner. A scientist’s greatest asset is the ability to communicate – only in this way can we effectively educate others, share our message and learn from our peers.


Okay, so besides science whether that’s in or out of the lab, what else do you love doing?

Sasha: I like to let out my creative side. If I have time off, I usually like to try a new recipe or restaurant, listen to live music or get creative with fashion or make up.


So, where do you see yourself after your PhD?

Sasha: Well, if Bill Nye ever retires… I’m only joking! Sophie! You’ve asked the one question that most grad students don’t want to hear! I’m not sure honestly. I’ve done quite a bit of work trying to figure out what I like to do both personally and scientifically. Maybe I’ll be wearing a power suit making decisions, maybe I’m pipetting with a furrowed brow or maybe I’m still shouting on a soapbox in the streets about science! I’m confident that there are roles out there that will suit me – I just ask that it is one that is exciting, challenging and keeps me happy. After all, someone once told me that your idea of ‘success’ changes over time, so I try not to plan too much in advance, but to just stay focused and pursue whatever it is that keeps me excited about science and happy.


And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?

Sasha: Visit the small islands of Croatia. See the stars at night and the fish in the day, and wonder how, in this great vastness of the world, can something so simple be so brilliant.


Thank you Sasha so much for agreeing to get involved with my blog. You truly are a phenomenal female and I am going to love following your science journey through your Instagram account 🙂 There were so many other quotes from our interview that I wanted to share but didn’t want to make the interview too long. But they have truly inspired me. I hope that one day our paths will cross and we can actually meet instead of just supporting each other by messaging. But for now, stay strong gal and keep doing that science!



Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Guest blog, Science@Home

Guest blog. 5 real life Fantastic Beasts and where to find them.

My final day in Barbados is finally here which means I have one final slot for a guest blogger.

I am a bit of a Potterhead at heart and loved the new addition to the Harry Potter universe when the first Fantastic Beasts film got released at the end of last year. So amongst my scicomm community on Instagram and Twitter, I have come across many different science bloggers who specialise in many different fields and I got inspired to include something a little different on my blog as part of my Science@Home feature and send you on a bit of a fantastic beast treasure hunt.


But obviously this is by no means my area of expertise so let me introduce you to my final guest blogger for April  who writes the That Biologist blog 🙂 I’m looking forward to seeing photos from your hunt and I’ll be back blogging from Monday. Enjoy your weekend everyone 🙂


Hi my name is Laura! I study conservation biology and I am totally obsessed with nature. The world just outside your door is full of fantastic beasts, although some look small they are far more interesting than you might think.


Let me introduce or perhaps reintroduce you to the magical creatures that might be closer than you think. If you think you’re up to the challenge this guide could be a way of finding your own beasts!

  1. The Woodlouse

Forget what you’ve heard about these amazing creatures because trust me they are far cooler than you ever thought they were. They are from the crustacean family meaning they are related to things like lobsters and crabs however I wouldn’t go eating these as they are supposed to taste like urine! Woodlice have evolved from being an aquatic species and need to still be in a moist environment as they lose water easily through there cuticle. They also have paddle shaped hind legs which is a throwback from their aquatic days. Although they make some people squirm they are incredibly important to the environment and are fantastic for gardens as they turn over soil and are important for things to biodegrade.

The Best Thing About Them: There are over 45 different species of woodlice for you to go and find!

Where To Find Them: In any damp and dark places, they love rotten wood and rocks!


  1. Lesser Horseshoe Bat

Bats are an incredibly important part of the UKs wildlife. Lesser Horseshoe bats are about the size of a plum and have distinctive horseshoe shaped noses. They feed on flies, wasps and spiders!

The Best Thing About Them: They use echolocation to get around and find their prey. Lesser horseshoes can be picked up on bat radars with a frequency call of 110khz.

Where To Find Them: Caves, barns and old houses are their favourite place to roost but you are more likely to see them at dusk in the summer when they come out to feed.


  1. Hedgehog

Hedgehogs are fantastic creatures, they eat snails and worms. There spikes are their defence mechanism and if they feel threatened they will roll into a bal. They love piles of logs which is why its important to check before you light a bonfire in case a hedgehog is inside.

The Best Thing About Them: Hedgehogs can run, climb and even swim!

Where To Find Them: In bushes and hedgerows, they love any piles of logs! They are quite shy so be very quiet if you hope to see them!


  1. Great crested newt

These newts are the largest species of newt in the UK. They have dark brown or black skin but on their bellies is orange with block spots. They live in ponds and water systems but due to a decline in habitat the population has decreased. However, you can help them by protecting ponds in your local area!

The Best Thing About Them: During the breeding season males develop a jagged crest which has a break at the base of the tail and females take on a ‘bulky’ appearance.

Where To Find Them: Ponds and ditches are the best places to find them, particularly surrounded by grassland. If you do get lucky and find them make sure to leave them alone as they are really rare!


  1. Toad

Unlike frogs toads tend to walk around, they eat slugs and snails. Unlike frogs, toads spend a lot of time away from water. In fact unless its breeding time you are more likely to find them in woody areas. However they do go through the same process from tadpols like frogs.

The Best Thing About Them: They can live up to 40 years!

Where To Find Them: Ponds and other damp areas. They love woody areas particularly with rivers running through them or at least that’s what my local toad likes!


That’s all I have for you today! If you’ve enjoyed reading about my fantastic beasts feel free to pop over to my blog for more! A huge thank you to Sophie for having me on your wonderful blog! Till next time I hope you all do well on your hunts for fantastic beasts!