Not all doctors have to be medically qualified:
my PhD story.

For as long as I can remember when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the response was always the same ‘I want to help people, I want to be a Doctor.’ Then A-Levels arrived, UCAS university applications were made, rejection letters were received, the dream was shattered......or so I thought.

Dr Ashley CartwrightThroughout my undergraduate studies, I always enjoyed the research work undertaken within the laboratory. Having opted to take a year in industry working at GlaxoSmithKline, my interest in the field of genetics was born. When deciding what I wanted to do after completion of my undergraduate degree I remember my tutor telling me that I was a good researcher and suggested that undertaking a PhD would be better for me in the long term. Having thought about this, I set off in search of university PhD programmes to apply to, only knowing I wanted to study genetics.

I happened to come across a project with Professor Anne Goodeve and Professor Ian Peake entitled ‘the genetic determinants of von Willebrand disease’. Having seen genetics in the title, I applied and was called to interview. Just prior to my interview I remember phoning Ian for some background to the project, with only his mobile phone information being listed on his webpage. I had initially put the call off late on a Friday afternoon and phoned early Monday morning thinking that he’d be in his office. I remember him answering and when I asked if he had time to speak his reply was, ‘well I’m on holiday with the grandkids in Anglesey, currently on the beach but yes I have time to speak to anyone interested in talking about von Willebrand disease.’ In that split second, I knew exactly what project I wanted to undertake. Having successfully made it through the interview, I informed my undergraduate tutor, who replied to tell me that he did his PhD in EXACTLY the same research group! EERIE!

I started my PhD studies in October 2010 assuming ‘PhD life’ would be just like that of undergraduate, this turned out to be the first lesson on a very steep learning curve. Undergraduate life was highly structured in terms of course content, attending lectures, completing assessments with the course mapped out by the lecturers and departmental heads. However, those first few months of postgraduate study were different, and in some instances I felt alone and isolated. Whilst the short-and long-term goals of the project were set out with guidance from Anne and Ian, the research was mapped and determined by the results of experiments. As a result, I spent the first 3-4 months “optimising” a protocol to detect deletions and duplications within the von Willebrand factor gene; whilst the research group around me seemed to be making massive leaps and generating a lot of data. But once up and running and over the initial culture shock of the postgraduate research experience, I found my place within the group and I’m sure that Anne, Ian and the rest of the Haemostasis group will agree if I said that I tended to be the outspoken one.

The first year of the PhD seemed to fly by and promising results were obtained after the initial optimisation problems. However, I realised that an important trait to have as a PhD student was patience and I am not a naturally patient person. A few postdocs mad me aware of the ‘second year blues’; at first I thought they were joking with me, then I thought it was some elite PhD jazz band, then the stark realisation of the meaning hit. A substantial amount of time was spent optimising various experimental procedures during second year, tarred with the occasional success. There was many a time where I would perform laboratory work hoping that this was the week it was going to work, only for nothing to turn up at the end of the week. On several occasions I actually thought to myself, ‘I may as well not have turned up this week, I’m in exactly the same position as last week’. Looking back, I realise that this was in fact incorrect, at the end of the week where nothing had worked, negative results are still results and provide you with insight and information as to what doesn’t work but what might work in future experiments. I got there in the end though with the help, support, advice and friendly teasing of my research colleagues, it took almost 12 months but we got there.

As a final year student I could see the end in sight, the light at the end of a seemingly dark tunnel. My final year was perhaps the most enjoyable year of my studies. Having provided assistance to members of the group during second year, I part supervised a Master’s student and thoroughly enjoyed this experience and this different side of research. There is a feeling of satisfaction when seeing an individual grow as a scientist, suggesting ideas to overcome challenges in the research, offering advice and the moments when they meet with you with a beaming smile to show you their results, that is second to none (in research, I’m sure there are other things in life though). I attended several conferences during my second and final year and I remember the nervous excitement of having to stand up and present in front of hundreds of people. People that are experts in the field, that are authors of a large number of the papers you have read, highly respected with a number of research grants. But looking past all their achievements you realise that they are down to earth people, genuinely interested in the field of research regardless of how young or old the researcher is, it really is satisfying having these individuals come up to you to chat after your presentations. It made overcoming all the challenges worthwhile as did the conference dinners and parties. Weirdly, I enjoyed writing up my PhD thesis, I think it was the satisfaction of being able to tell the story of your research findings and what the implications of the research are for further investigations. What I didn’t enjoy the late nights and early morning starts trying to ensure I completed and submitted within the 3 year deadline (I submitted in 3 years and 3 days).

I completed my Doctoral studies with a successful viva defence (4hrs 30min!) in November 2013, the same day as science lost the great Frederick Sanger. I am currently in training to become a clinical scientist at the Sheffield Children’s Hospital, working in the diagnostic genetics department to aid in disease diagnosis, management and prognosis. Almost 18 months after completing my PhD, looking back through all the highs and lows of the process I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing, all the challenges and stress were character building and the experiences have shaped the scientist I am today. I feel that I have gained knowledge, skills and experience that I will carry with me forever. My childhood dream has come true, not in the conventional sense but I am a Doctor and I am helping people.

I am thankful for the opportunity given to me by the Cardiovascular Science Department and in particular the Haemostasis research group and would like to wish everyone all the best for the future.