Alessandro: PhD Biosciences

Alessandro, a PhD Biosciences student, describes his experiences of being a doctoral research student in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham.


My name’s Alessandro Lazdins. I'm a second year PhD student at the School of Biosciences in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, and I'm studying antimicrobial resistance and plasmids especially.

I chose the University of Birmingham because first of all I did my undergraduate degree, and during my third year – well my final year undergraduate project I was exposed to this great community of researchers.  And my supervisors at the time suggested, or at least told me, that there was a pot of money to basically pursue a postgraduate degree. And at the time not being sure what I wanted to do, but having really enjoyed doing my lab-based final year project, I basically grabbed the opportunity and there was no better place to do it, especially in the field of microbiology because of the size and the kind of width and breadth of knowledge that there is at the University of Birmingham. So it was by far the best option for the field I wanted to study.

Being a research student typically involves a lot of time at the bench, so I'm a life scientist so I do a lot of experiments. On a kind of day to day basis I come in at nine and setup cultures and make media and run my experiments basically until four o’clock. And the good thing is that a lot of the time I have to leave my bacteria to grow, so in between the cells growing I try to read some papers or have meetings or get involved with other things outside of my research. Typically I see my supervisor when I need to. He's a professor so he's quite busy, but he does always find time for his students. But there is monthly supervision meetings that are scheduled and you have to have them.  We fill in a form and it’s with all my supervisors, so my first and second supervisor, so that happens every month, and it’s a formal process that all PhD students at the University have to go through.

The postgraduate community in the School of Biosciences is quite diverse and very broad. I mean there's a large, large number of students and we’re spread over a whole building which is seven floors. But we have - so I'm also part of the graduate school committee and we organise termly activities, so we have a Christmas drinks and meals, and we have also a poster conference that we organise and in general there is lots of opportunities for people to kind of get together and exchange different ideas and also just have a good time. And in terms of other activities the Institute where I'm working in organises bi-weekly coffee mornings for post-docs and PhD students, so coffee’s put out and post-docs and PhD students can come together and kind of talk and discuss their problems that they have in the lab, and so there's always an opportunity to kind of mingle. And if it’s not with the wider community within your lab there's always several PhD students or several post-docs that are more than willing help out and kind of get involved with not only your lab work, but also outside of basically, you know, outside of your day to day commitments.

For my research I'm funded by the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh which is a non-profit charity, and they have a generous stipend and also pay all my lab fees and my tuition fees. In that regards I'm quite lucky to have the possibility to be funded. And for conferences there’s societies – so I'm a member of the Society for General Microbiology, and they funded my attendance to the conference. Unfortunately it was in Birmingham this year so I didn’t get to stay at a swanky hotel, but generally they're very good at funding, and there's a lot of opportunity to, you know, for funding for conferences abroad, and if the societies don’t fund you I think the Schools also have pots of money to allocate for conferences or courses or other kind of extra-curricular activities.

My top tip for a prospective postgraduate researcher is probably get involved as much as you can on a practical basis during your undergraduate degree.  Something that a lot of postgraduate – well supervisors and PhD funders are looking for is experience in a lab-based setting, and the kind of knowledge and will and ability to apply practical skills on theoretical things that everyone learns anyways in an undergraduate degree. And so that’s probably the most important aspect of a strong application and so I would definitely say get involved as much as you can with practical projects, do summer internships at different labs or in your university or industry or whatever you find – that’s definitely a big plus.