Guest Blog | Developing New Industrial Skills at the Heart of the UK’s Covid-19 Response

The end of your PhD is a confusing and difficult time. The relief of completing four years of work combined with the stress of an impending viva and uncertainty of going out into the world and finding a real grown-up job make your final few months a whirlwind of expectations. Did you maintain enough of that first-year optimism to make a go of it in academia, or is it time to branch out and try something a bit different?

Last year the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) took in a group of PhD student interns to give them a taste of what a job in industry feels like. Here, two of those interns, Rebecca Kelly (RK) and Michel Eyres (ME), share their experiences of their placements, how it benefitted their future careers, and what happened when the labs shut down, and MDC instead became responsible for running one of the largest Coronavirus testing centres in the country.


Why did you want to do an industry internship during your PhD?

ME: I had just handed in my PhD thesis and was at a bit of a loss about which direction to move into next. Luckily, I saw an advert by the MRC for some industrial placements. I’ve tried to gain as much diverse experience as possible in the last few years to really get an idea of the types of options available post-PhD, so I jumped at the chance of gaining some experience in industry. The more I looked into it; the more MDC seemed like the kind of place I’d like to work. They were set up by the UK government to support the biotech industry in the UK, so you get to work on a huge variety of projects and interact with a range of different biotechs. That project diversity is something that I really enjoy and probably the biggest difference for me compared to academia.

RK: An internship within industry was always a big goal for me as a potential future career path and providing valuable experience for a scientist. Working within a company such as MDC has exposed me to different science and provided opportunities you might not be able to have as a PhD student within academia.


What did you do?

ME: I was helping to set up a new platform at MDC for doing spatial transcriptomics. It was a really interesting project that somehow managed to merge all the disparate aspects of my PhD into one. Helping to set up a brand new, top of the range instrument was a great opportunity and something rarely provided in academia where you generally have to make do with whatever is in the lab already.

MDC sits at the forefront of new technology and innovation, making working here a lot more interesting. However, three months into the placement, just as experiments were starting to get interesting, all the labs shut down due to the pandemic, and everything was put on hold.

RK: I worked on a project helping to validate human cell models for neurological disease, mainly using advanced microscopy techniques to perform high-resolution imaging of complex cell models. These cell models contain different cell types (stem-cell derived) to mimic the biology of the central nervous system. 3D imaging allows an understanding of how the cell types interact with each other in the culture.

The internship allowed me to work on a different disease to my PhD, and developed my foundation in microscopy by building on current confocal skills but also gaining new skills such as high throughput microscopy, super-resolution techniques and tissue imaging.

How did you end up working in the Alderley Park Lighthouse Lab?

ME: When everything shut down, we were all sent home to work. I spent a few weeks at home doing data analysis for a couple of different projects, but I started going stir-crazy very quickly. A few weeks into lockdown, we heard that MDC would be setting up the Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park, and I volunteered to help in the labs there straight away. Everything was split into different workstations that handled different aspects of the testing process. I was working in workstation 1, processing nasal swabs and pipetting them into 96 well plates. It’s a very different type of work from what I’m used to, but it was great to get some extra experience and see how a diagnostic lab works.

RK: I was volunteering at the next stage in the testing process to Michael. We took the plates that they had pipetted the different samples into and performed the RNA extraction steps. Afterwards, the samples were moved to the PCR stage, where the virus was detected. Volunteering for the MDC Lighthouse Lab provided another layer of experience to the internship. I gained an insight into working in a diagnostic lab, an extremely fast paced environment that relies on teamwork, organisation, and multitasking!


What are you most pleased/proud of from this time?

ME: I got to help out at the very start of the pandemic during the first peak when things were really desperate, back when you were only allowed to leave the house once a day. Being able to help out during a crisis like that is something I’m very proud of.

RK: I volunteered in the Lighthouse Lab from its early days. Therefore, I trained lots of people on our workstation every day – some who are still working there now. I am proud to have been a part of the Lighthouse Lab and being able to support the Covid-19 testing.


Where are you now?

ME/RK: As the labs started to reopen, we got to go back to our original projects at MDC. Despite all the challenges of the past year, we managed to make a good impression, and we’re both now employed by MDC as post-doctoral scientists.


Dr Michael Eyres and Rebecca Kelly