PhD Update: 2019 Q2

It is now the end of June, so its time to reflect on the second quarter of the last year of my PhD. Did I achieve everything I set out to do? Read on to find out…

I did manage to send away the set of compounds I was talking about last quarter – the ones that would define the end of two results chapters of my thesis and the chemistry I plan to do for the rest of the year. I’ve received half of the data back about them, and it seems my compounds made by the shorter chemical route seem to work about as well as the ones made by a longer route.

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the data back. I don’t have the information about a potential side effect my drugs might cause. This side effect may be caused by my drug fitting into an enzyme that’s very similar in shape to the one I specifically want to investigate with my drugs. I need that “selectivity” ratio (i.e. how well the drug shuts down one enzyme vs another) to be better than my best compound so far (it’s a 7-fold different at the moment) otherwise I’ll need to go back to my old chemistry which took a lot longer to carry out.


Image caption: Fiona standing in front of a giant cauldron at Warner Bros Studios: The Making of Harry Potter. As a chemist, I couldn’t resist posing by this potions staple! 


Usually, I get both sets of data at the same time, but my collaborator has been having issues with setting up the “side effect” experiment, which is unfortunate timing, but these things happen. Hopefully, she’ll have managed it before the start of next month. Otherwise, I can either send the compounds to a company to run the same test or make a guess and get on with the faster and easier chemistry in the process. My current “to make” list seems to have a lot of easy-to-make compounds that don’t seem to have been made before, so there is value in making them despite not having all the information I need to justify making them over other compounds.

I mentioned I’ve made some of the compounds that will wind up other chapters of my thesis. There were two on the list that I have been struggling to make for a very long time. It’s got to the point where I’ve put a pin in those for now, so I can focus on trying new things. After several months of trying to make the same compounds, I’ve had enough. It may well be that with current chemistry techniques and reactions, it isn’t possible to make the particular molecules which I have in mind – which is still new to the field.

I have written up these two sections of my project in paper form for the last month or so and once I get some repeat experiments run by my collaborator I should be able to submit those papers to journals and hopefully get that chunk of work out there – even if it wasn’t successful, I’ve still made some brand new compounds that don’t seem to have been made before which someone else could apply to a different project. This is the first time I’ve tried writing papers and the words have come relatively quickly, which I think is thanks to me spending a lot of time writing as a theatre critic/interviewer in my spare time. Keep those hobbies up, you never know where those transferable skills might come in handy.

I also received some bonus good news regarding papers: I found out some compounds I made in 2015/2016 as part of my master’s project are being included in an article so I might get another publication to my name as well! That project shows how long it can take to discover new things in the early stages of drug discovery. I made that compound 3 years ago, and it’s only now that the biologist I made it for has a nice rounded research “story” to share with the world.

In terms of science communication stuff, I really enjoyed taking part in Soapbox Science Brighton. I got to stand on a soapbox on Brighton beach and share the similarities I’ve found between baking and medicinal chemistry. It was a lot of fun to speak about science in such a unique space!


Image caption: Fiona standing on a soapbox by Brighton beach in a lab coat and holding a massive cake as part of Soapbox Science Brighton talking to a crowd


I tried out that talk for the first time at another event called PubhD in Hackey, London and led other drug design workshops at Sussex University and the London Science Museum. I’m doing well at keeping the science communication stuff to weekends or short periods on campus so I can get on with other work – I’m usually far too good at saying yes to distractions.


Image caption: Fiona talking to a crowd in a pub at PubhD London


I visited another conference, a longer one this time in Ghent, Belgium. It was called Bioheterocycles 2019. I got to give a 15-minute talk about my project which seemed to be well received and enjoyed the mixed programme of interesting chemistry talks and social events including a boat tour, banquet and Belgian beer reception.


Image caption: Smiling selfie of Fiona in the medieval city of Ghent in Belgium


Non-science stuff included playing in orchestras for some concerts in the Albert Hall in London and the Usher Hall in Edinburgh; I’ve moved to a flat of my own for the last six months of my PhD and I enjoyed a trip to Warner Bros Studios and a little holiday to Centerparcs to celebrate my partner Darren having his birthday and passing his thesis defence – I’m very proud of him and hope to be in the same position as him by this time next year!

Over the next three months I aim to submit those two papers; have a productive couple of months in the lab making some finer tweaks to my best compound to make it even better; as always, get up to date with my data analysis and experimental write-up; do some theatre reviewing at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and attend another conference in Athens in September which I have just secured a grant to attend. This is the beginning of the end!

How have the past few months been for you? Do you have plans over the summer? Let me know in the comments below.


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