Dr Susan Crosthwaite
When did you first you realise that you wanted to specialise in Molecular Biology?
Probably in the final year of my Genetics Degree. This was over 30 years ago and we had a new lecturer who taught us about regulation of gene expression. I guess he was the first molecular biologist I had come across and I found the subject fascinating.
What inspired you to go down this path?
After graduating I worked as a technician. My first project was on transposition in bacteria, my second on canine adenovirus-so both projects had a Molecular Biology base. I had applied for these positions simply because I thought they were interesting.
What is your area of research focus?
My research is on noncoding RNA. My postdoc in the USA was all to do with the molecular basis of the circadian biological clock. One of the genes encoding a central component of this clock is the frequency gene and it turns out that this gene not only produces an RNA that encodes for the FREQUENCY protein, an integral molecular cog of the biological clock, but also a long non-protein coding RNA. Studying this gene lead to further work on other ncRNAs, both long and short.
Have there been any funny moments in the lab during your time at UoM?
Some of our experiments are carried out in a dark room with only dim red light to see by. It takes some time for your eyes to adjust and so I will always remember working away in the dark room believing that I was the only person in the room, when suddenly I heard a disembodied voice asking me what I was doing. Yikes! No ghost, just a student who had been quietly sitting in the corner waiting to harvest a sample.
What factors contribute to becoming a successful Molecular Biologist?
A burning interest in the subject area is extremely important, as is the ability to ask the right questions, and to investigate results that don’t seem to add-up. The latter depend somewhat on not being influenced too much by the general consensus of how things function. Jobs in academia are incredibly competitive and this means candidates must have published high impact research papers and work in an area that attracts research funding. Thus, the choice of a PhD project and then postdoc position is important. Even PhD studentships are incredibly competitive so acquiring experience as an undergraduate, working in a lab during the summer or registering on a degree with industrial experience can be key to getting your foot on the first step of the ladder.
Is a career in research the only option for people with a degree in molecular biology?
Not at all. Molecular biology and molecular biology techniques are used to profile samples and make molecules in clinical laboratories and in industry. Other science-related careers include scientific writing, popular science writing and science education. Since a degree in molecular biology demonstrates a certain level of intellectual ability, numeracy, literacy and critical thinking; these skills are sought after by employers in many different sectors.
What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab/lecture theatre?
I love being outdoors and enjoy hill-walking and long trail rides on my horse, Sam.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Manchester?
I don’t often go into the city centre but when I do I like to be there in the early evening. Everything is lit up and there’s a big-city buzz, restaurants and bars are full and there are plenty of people on their way to the theatre or a night out.
Do you have a science hero?
There are several scientists whose work and approach I admire. Most are not well-known but scientists who meet high standards and who are fun to be around because of their vast knowledge and the questions they pose. If I had to choose well-known science hero it would be Barbara McClintock. In the 1940’s she discovered mobile genetic elements or “jumping genes”. Even though she had genetic and cytological evidence to back her theories, her ideas were controversial and were not generally accepted for many years. Nevertheless she persevered with her studies and years later transposons were found to be prevalent in many different species. In fact over 50% of the human genome is thought to be derived from transposable elements.
Is it the case that an understanding of Molecular Biology is often necessary to understand other aspects of biology?
Definitely. Molecular biology is the study of the molecules, molecular interactions and molecular mechanisms that are the foundation of life. It focuses on molecules but uses this knowledge to inform our understanding of how organisms grow, replicate and maintain a functional, often complicated, body structure.
For more information and publications: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/?alias=crosthwaites&view=publications
Tapoka Mkandawire, Final Year BSc Molecular Biology with Industrial Experience
Why did you want to study Molecular Biology?
I first became interested in Molecular Biology at the beginning of my AS year when I was trying to decide what to apply for at university. I initially wanted to study medicine, but I chose to apply to Molecular Biology instead because I came to realise that I loved the scientific processes behind drug discovery as opposed to more clinical aspects of science.
Why did you choose to study at Manchester?
The main reason I chose to study at The University of Manchester was because of the opportunity to do the Industrial Placement year. I thought it would be a great way for me to get more scientific experience and help me clarify what direction I wanted to take my career in the future. The University has great links with highly respected companies, so I thought Manchester would be the place for me if I wanted to get onto a good placement.
What is your favourite thing about living in Manchester?
Definitely the dynamic city atmosphere! There’s always something new and exciting to do here. I love being able to walk out of my front door into a city full of activity.
What have you enjoyed most about your course?
I have really enjoyed all of our lab sessions. They have really served to help me understand what ‘day to day’ science looks like and how experiments can build a bigger picture and reveal new things about the way life works.
Was your course what you expected it to be like?
My course is very different to what I expected—in a good way! I thought it would be full of long hours of theory, and arduous exams. However it’s quite different! There’s a strong practical element and also a very strong mentoring culture, where I am mentored by staff as well as lots of peer to peer mentoring as well. This allows me to give back and be further supported.
What did you do during your placement year?
On my placement year, I worked for a Biotechnology company that develops gene therapies. I found the opportunity through the placement office, and was hired after an interview. I really enjoyed my time on placement. I grew as a scientist and as a person, becoming a lot more confident in my skills and abilities, as well as learning many new techniques. It was very exciting to be on the cutting edge of science!
How would you summarise your time in Manchester in 3 words?
Inspiring, maturing, gratifying.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After graduation I hope to do a PhD, and then continue working in research.
Do you have any advice for future Molecular Biology students?
The University of Manchester is a great university and definitely favours the ‘go getter’. Make the most of your time here. There are countless opportunities to be involved in (inside and outside of the faculty), and have a rich and full university experience.