This is a podcast of the Nuffield Department of Medicine (NDM). We asked Sarah Dixon-Clarke about her experiences as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.
Q: Why did you decide to study for a DPhil?
SD: So I studied for my BSc in chemistry at the University of St Andrews, and I've always really enjoyed my subject, and during my time there, I gained a BBSR summer studentship to do some research in a lab, and then I also undertook a lab-based research dissertation project. I think these experiences really just confirmed that I wanted to continue a career in academic research and the DPhil was the next stage for this.
Q: Can you tell us about your research?
SD: Yes, so my DPhil is a structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), I’m part of the NDM. The aim of my project is to look at the extended family of cyclin-dependent kinases. To look at the structure and function, mainly, utilising X-ray crystallography. So cyclin-dependent kinases are protein kinases, which form a complex with a cyclin binding partner, and they're responsible for phosphorylating and regulating other proteins. So the most well-known members of this family are involved in phosphorylating key cell cycle regulators, and they're also known to have roles in transcription. But there are some members of this family where their structure and function is less well defined, and they could also have potentially equally important roles.
So my project has been looking at the extended family of cyclin-dependent kinases, and more recently the focus has been on cyclin-dependent kinase 12. That is complex because it's shown to be a seasonal role in transcription, but it's also trying to be important for the expression of various DNA damage response genes and it also has been implicated in various forms of cancer so breast and ovarian cancer. So I recently determined the structure at the SGC, and this has given us some insight into its regulation. And it's also a great opportunity to collaborate, to look at its activity and also more now, we can look at the drug ability of this target, and we're collaborating with some people on this which I think is really exciting.
Q: What made you interested in your particular field of research?
SD: I think I had a relatively diverse background of research experience. I did a project in enzymology and virology, but I think underlying these was a general interest in protein function. And during my degree, I attended various courses, which gave me some insight into aspects of structural biology and their importance, and in particular, the utility of X-ray crystallography and its value in determining protein function and regulation. So I was really keen to use this within my DPhil to learn more about this and gain training in this technique, and this project, and the department just really appealed to me. I think they have extensive experience in X-ray crystallography at the SGC, as well as other techniques. I’ll be able to gain experience in aspects of molecular biology, and other biophysical techniques as well as having quite diverse group members and extensive collaborations in both industry and academia. It offers other opportunities for different skill sets.
Q: Why did you apply to Oxford?
SD: I think it's such a prestigious university with an incredible reputation, and it's renowned for its excellence in research, to get across the NDM and so I knew I'd be able to get excellent training and there are brilliant facilities. I think what was really great as well was that the NDM studentship offers four years on one project, which is relatively uncommon I think to focus on one area of research, and I think Oxford is such a beautiful city to live in. And I was really interested to be part of one of the colleges that is so famous to us.
Q: What has surprised you about Oxford?
SD: I think before I arrived, I almost had a preconception, and because Oxford has such an incredible reputation I was kind of worried that I would be intimidated when I arrived. Actually, when I got here I found within college and my department it's just a very supportive, friendly environment and there's so much going on there's something for everyone. I was particularly impressed when I joined college I became a peer supporter so I was part of the welfare system within college in the University. I'm just impressed at how much is available for you should you need anything. I think it's just an incredibly supportive and friendly environment I found both at work and in college.
Q: What are the best things about studying here?
SD: I think it was a lot of things I really enjoyed in Oxford, I think, within my department, there are so many great opportunities, there's always lectures and speakers, there are courses we can attend and then there's been funding for me to go to various conferences and courses externally as well which has been incredibly helpful. I think also one of the best things is I'm a member of University College and I'm really very fond of it. I don't think I appreciated before I arrived and what a big part would play in my life, so it forms a big part of your social life I lived in college as well for example and I got involved in things I never imagined I would do like rowing, for example, I didn't think I'd take to that and then there's always so much going on and there are so many people you meet from diverse backgrounds and from different subjects. And I really think there are clubs and societies for everyone and formal halls, dinners, everything about it I think is really lucky to be able to be a part of.
Thank you, Sarah.
SD: Thank you.