Ashley Ferguson (MPhil Student, 2017-18, Frezza Laboratory, MRC Cancer Unit)
Thank you to Anasuya for giving me the space to reflect on my time here.
I arrived in Cambridge by taxi in a zombie-like state on a Tuesday morning at 2:00 am. We don’t have porters at U.S. universities, so I was surprised when a friendly (and very awake!) young porter was waiting to show me to my room at Churchill College. Despite jetlag and a nagging sense of Cambridge wanderlust, my research project was the first thing on my mind when I woke up the next morning.
After working as a summer student in Christian’s lab in 2016, Christian agreed to support my application to come back for a master’s. Before I left for the summer, he advised, “You should use this opportunity [of your master’s application] to begin to develop your own questions”. What he meant was, in contrast to the summer I’d spent in his lab working on Isaac’s project, my master’s was my chance to explore my own scientific curiosities, within the context of the lab’s interest and expertise. Though I had developed a strong interest in the intersection between mitochondrial morphology and cell metabolism, I didn’t have the technical expertise to translate this interest into a tangible project. Christian’s goal, I believe, was to encourage me to start thinking about how to do this.
I took my first stab at formulating my own research project as a 16-year old at my science high school in Virginia, USA. At the Loudoun Academy of Science, sophomores are asked to design their projects from scratch. With generous funding from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, this can translate into teens doing tissue culture in a classroom. Though unsurprisingly my high school cancer research project didn’t amount to any discoveries, I did get to experience the joy, and what I believe can only be called the addiction, of making observations based on my own questions.
In high school, research was set up to be entirely of the students, by the students, and for the students. At university, I realized that concerns about funding, publications, and reputation are all part of the professional world of science. Though I think it’s still possible to have a focus on student learning in a university lab, the pressures faced by a principal investigator are much different than those faced by teachers and directors at a science high school.
My love for science not only survived but also grew through the reality of university research as I realized I could do what I loved for a job. I’m reminded of some advice one of my Biology professors once gave me about pursuing a career in research, “If you can think of anything else you might enjoy doing, you should do that instead”. This wasn’t a cynical old professor trying to beat down an overly-eager young student: she loves her job. Rather, she wants her students to be familiar with the degree of uncertainty, need to cope with relatively constant levels of failure and rejection, and likely poor pay that accompany each stage of training during the life of a scientist.
My fascination with the Warburg effect that developed during my high school research lead me to a mitochondrial biology lab at university. When I realized that most scientific discoveries don’t translate into benefits for human health within a scientist’s lifetime, I learned to lean more on my desire to understand nature for motivation. As my work became more mechanistic in its focus on mitochondrial dynamics, I found that I could be just as excited when science was stripped down to its bare essentials as when I could see its immediate application in a disease context.
My project proposal for my master’s involved breaking down the relationship between mitochondrial morphology and respiratory capacity. I wanted to interrogate whether elongated mitochondria better support oxidative phosphorylation, and if so, why. During our first meeting this year, Christian advised me that it would take years, not months, to address the connection between mitochondrial shape and ATP production. Instead, he suggested I tackle the problem of altered mitochondrial morphology in FH deficient cells. This shift in morphology had been observed but not quantified, and no work had been done to investigate the mechanisms or consequences. The project appealed to me because it would give me a chance to dig deeper into the molecular biology of mitochondrial dynamics while maintaining a connection to cell metabolism. The FH deficient system is unique in having a direct connection between mitochondrial dysfunction, altered metabolism, and a change in mitochondrial morphology.
In order to give me access to resources and expertise that would expedite a challenging interdisciplinary project, Christian brought on Julien Prudent from the Mitochondrial Biology Unit. Julien’s knowledge of mitochondrial dynamics complements our strength in metabolism, allowing us to bridge the two fields. Christian also asked Vinny to be my official point of technical support in the lab.
I felt that I stumbled for my first few months as I struggled to balance advice that I received from each of my mentors. With time though, I realized that as a student it was my role to take in the differing opinions of these three experienced scientists and create a rationale for my experimental decisions based on the goals of my project.
Before I came here, I thought that training to become a scientist meant learning how to think: learning how to plan experiments and how to decide on the best questions to ask. It might sound counterintuitive, as science is fundamentally empirical, but I didn’t realize how important it is to be strong technically to be a good scientist. It’s taken me most of my master’s to realize how important it is to listen as an early scientist: thinking independently necessarily follows mastery of technique. When I move to my next stage of training, I’ll hold onto the increased self-awareness/humility I’ve gained here that has allowed me to understand that experience in a technique is not the same as mastery of it.
As the end of my year approaches, I remain grateful for the support I’ve received: that sense of treasuring the things I will come to miss in this place has already started to set in.
Comparing personal or academic challenges to climbing mountains or finishing races is usually cliché. But at least once during my time in Cambridge, because I joined the Cambridge Hounds and Hares Cross Country team, I had to climb an actual mud hill (okay not a mountain) to finish a cross country race.