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The Doctoral Academy provides a key point of reference and a supportive, thriving and vibrant community for all doctoral research students in the University. It aims, therefore, to break down barriers and facilitate shared experiences and collaborative working for our richly diverse community of researchers.

We strongly encourage you to explore the site and get a feel for what the Doctoral Academy is all about. The Doctoral Academy aims to engage and develop a doctoral student community through the showcasing of student research and the promotion of resources and opportunities. Please get in touch, or better still, get involved with the Virtual Community and other postgraduate events and outreach to unlock your research potential.

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Winning Poster

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WHEN YOU PLAY THE GAME OF iGEM YOU WIN…!

I don’t think Jonny Coates would mind me saying that he didn’t fully realise what he was getting himself into when he responded to a talk by two PhD students Kyle and Dimitrios trying to recruit PhD’s to the iGEM team project. However, something clearly went well given that House Sheffield blew all their own, and others’, expectations away.

For those not already in the know, iGEM is an international student team competition in the field of Synthetic Biology (incidentally not Jonny’s area of research or experience). In 2016, over 5500 students from 42 countries took part, and the fledgling team from Sheffield received both a gold medal and a nomination for the Best Diagnostic Project. Their project was focussed on combatting antibiotic resistance by developing a small, fast diagnostic tool to help GPs determine whether a bacterial infection is present before prescribing the antibiotic. The methodology could also be applied to the agricultural industry which, given the more relaxed regulations governing antibiotic use in this field, would arguably provide even greater benefits.

To fully grasp the significance of their success, we must go back to Spring 2016 when the founders of the team came together thanks to the inspiration of Saylee Jangam. Since Sheffield does not currently have a regular fund dedicated to iGem, the team went to departments cap-in-hand in search of the £50,000 minimum required for the project. The outcome of this approach was an impressive collaboration across departments. The final line-up includes bionengineers, geneticists, chemists…and an economist, to name just some of the disciplines represented. Even with these funds the project relied heavily on the generosity (in time and expertise) of the PhD’s involved who, unlike the undergraduate team members, were not paid for their involvement.

Having established funds and recruited team members, there were still many challenges ahead for House Sheffield! Several of the PhD team members had confirmation reviews or submissions deadlines that coincided with much of the heavy-going summer work that the team took on, and all of the undergraduate students and PhD level advisors struggled to manage their study commitments alongside long days in the lab. The team remained committed however, and Jonny recalls some crucial advice that he received, ‘either don’t do it, or do it properly’; luckily for Sheffield he decided on the latter! He says that he has learned a lot with regard to doing it properly; coping with the challenges of managing a team, many of whom were more experienced researchers, but none of whom were really experienced in running a project of this type, and running a lab for 10 undergraduates, not to mention the time management involved.

On top of all of this, just as with many research projects, not everything went to plan. Their original goal was to create a small hand held device, but in order to address the complexities of the project they ended up with a larger modular device. Even ordering materials was not always straight forward; having lab space and equipment generated its own range of problems.

Despite all the adversity, the outcomes for the team have been really positive; several of the undergraduate members are now applying for PhDs or jobs in related industries. For the PhD advisors the benefits may be less obvious, but Jonny and the others have clearly gained a wealth of experience and skills that will be of use for their future career aspirations. Indeed for Jonny the hope is that it will stand him in good stead for a career in academia.

It’s not all over yet either; the team is working on a manuscript which they hope to release soon and there are potential talks with businesses who are interested in what they have developed. As for the future of iGEM in Sheffield, it looks unlikely that there will be a 2017 team, but keep your eyes open, some of those undergraduates may be well placed to take on the role of advisors in the years to come!

Top Tips For Competition and Project Work

  • Shop around for your members – use the research collaboration finder  and advertise outside your Faculty – government and research councils are highly focussed on interdisciplinary work and researchers outside your area can provide a unique and innovative perspective of your project.
  • Be clear about the commitment – as far as possible, plan exactly how much time and resource you will need for your project at each stage so that there are no unpleasant shocks. Try to timetable the project work around key milestones within your PhD to avoid clashes. Clearly communicate the level of commitment needed from team members at the outset. There is training on time management available with ThinkAhead.
  • Secure support from staff – academic staff have a great deal of expertise in project management and can provide a useful sounding board. Various teams within R&IS may be able to support you with practical advice regarding subjects such as public engagement and other areas.
  • Be proactive about team management and making yourself a good leader where necessary – check for leadership training with ThinkAhead.