It's not often a PhD student finds themselves with a whole hour to break for lunch. So when asked to review one of the Wellcome Trust’s 'Packed Lunch' talks, I jumped at the chance to make better use of some rare free time. The monthly event, situated at the Euston-based Wellcome Collection, promises to feed your curiosity with talks from local scientists discussing their latest experiments, life in the lab and why science matters. All in the space of a single lunch hour!
Discussing this month's topic of DNA repair was speaker Charlotte Mykura, a geneticist and final year PhD student from Imperial College London. Chatting with her was interviewer Michael Regnier, a science writer/editor from the Wellcome Trust.
Having arrived early, albeit not quite prepared enough to have brought any packed food along, I managed to get a seat near the front. A quick glance around the room showed 40 or so other people and I was surprised at how diverse the audience was. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting as the talks are free to anyone and everyone, but it was nice to see such mixed ages taking an interest in science.
After introducing herself, the discussion kicked off with Mykura giving us an insight into her research. Challenging the traditional concept of DNA as a helical structure inside us, Mykura explained that, in fact, DNA is more of a forest or hairball. Although this image conjures up the illusion of a disorganised mess, she clarified that there are in fact layers of structure and regulation, which she researches.
Specifically, Mykura is interested in a protein called cohesin, part of the machinery inside us that helps control cell division. During this process, which gives rise to genetically identical 'daughter' cells, cohesin acts as a lock to hold the two identical strands of chromosomes together until it is time for them to separate.
What happens if there is a mistake within the system? Mykura explained that everything needs to happen at the correct time and place. Particular chemical modifications cause cohesion to bind to DNA at the right point in the cell cycle. Modifications inserted at any other point wouldn’t have the same effect. Yet errors in cohesin can disrupt the entire process and lead to cells becoming cancerous.
Mykura referred to her work as 'blue skies research', an intriguing term I’ve not heard of before. It means that her research does not have an immediate application; she is not aiming for a direct cure for cancer. Instead, she is aiming to understand fundamental processes and how they are regulated, in the hope of moving science and medicine forward.
I would have liked to have delved a bit deeper into Mykura's research, but, moving on, we learned a little about Mykura's day-to-day life in the lab, something I’m all too familiar with. She described some typical experiments in which, amusingly, she declared 'I love yeast!' (as a cellular model that is.)
The end of the first half concluded with Regnier asking Mykura where she sees genetic research going in the future. As anticipated, the topic of CRISPR arose which Mykura described as a 'fantastic tool'. She added that she believes genetics should be taught earlier on in school, to make people more passionate about biology and their health, something I wholly agree with.
The second half of the session gave the audience a chance to ask their own questions. One audience member probed into the reliability of using yeast cells for investigating cancer. Mykura had touched upon this earlier, mentioning that these cells can be readily grown and can have mutations inserted into them. She highlighted their pitfalls, such as the lack of a surrounding body, but emphasised that they have many advantages when it comes to looking at so-called 'basic' processes. I'm glad people are questioning the relevance of different models in research.
As a fellow final year PhD student, I was most interested in what Mykura plans on doing in the future. Although she said she hasn't totally ruled out a postdoc, she has the usual fears of lacking a permanent position, pay and stability. Something I'm sure many other PhD students at Mykura’s stage will sympathise with.
On that note, the talk concluded. Mykura is no stranger to the spotlight, having been involved with a number of different science events and festivals and this was evident. She spoke with confidence and clarity and engaged the audience. Regnier also did a great job of carrying the conversation and clarifying anything that the audience may not have understood.
The session was in no doubt interesting, but I left feeling as though a little depth was lacking. Having said that, this is most likely due to my background as a scientist and the fact that I already have a reasonable basis of knowledge on the subject matter. The talks clearly have quite a following, as when Regnier asked who was new to the Packed Lunch talks, only a quarter at most raised their hands. Apparently this amounted to quite a lot.
Overall, I think the Packed Lunch talks are a great way of engaging the public in science. I will definitely keep my eye on future talks, but perhaps seek a topic in which I know slightly less about in the first instance.
You can also listen to individual 'Packed Lunch' podcasts online.