I’m Tiffany Ma, a final year PhD student in Oncology at the University of Oxford – welcome to my blog post. I am extremely grateful to have been awarded the inaugural BACR Student Impact Award and have been invited to write about my journey towards the award. As an international student who grew up in Hong Kong and California, this award has meant a lot to me as it is a reflection of how welcome and supported I have felt within my local communities in Oxford as well as in the wider scientific community in the UK.
As a quick background, I carried out my PhD project in Professor Ester Hammond’s lab in the Department of Oncology where I investigated links between two major stress response pathways, the DNA damage response (DDR) and the unfolded protein response (UPR) in tumour hypoxia. Hypoxia is important and interesting to study as it is a common feature of tumours and associated with therapy resistance and poor patient prognosis. Despite the pandemic impacting my PhD, I have been lucky to be able to publish my PhD work in Nature Communications with my co-first author Dr Shaliny Ramachandran. This could not have been possible without my incredible colleagues in the Hammond lab who have created a positive work culture, which has been important more than ever given a global pandemic and major political changes.
The importance of a supportive network of PhD students, scientists and mentors.
Despite the scientific method being objective, rational and logical, I have learned that much of a happy/ successful PhD journey is dependent on the support of ‘soft’ connections — people, peers and mentors who may not necessarily be a co-author on your scientific publication but are vital in a successful and enjoyable PhD experience. These people help foster a supportive environment that is conducive to overcoming obstacles (both technical and personal) in an intense PhD journey. In addition, the openness, creativity and exchange of ideas in informal chats over coffee breaks, or serendipitous discussions as you bump into a colleague down a corridor, are in my opinion invaluable for an engaging PhD experience. Most importantly, the emotional support of a network (from your supervisor, lab group and departmental peers) is game-changing: in the roller coaster experience of being a cancer researcher, navigating through complex science, failed experiments, and demanding protocols while meeting deadlines and assessments, the support of fellow researchers can help you build resilience, grit and maintain practical optimism.
As an international student who had never been in the continent, much less the UK, settling into a new country where I knew nobody, was unfamiliar with the culture, customs and the cool myriad of accents, was exciting but difficult. Can I still eat Hong Kong cuisine from a restaurant nearby? Why are there so many different phrases to describe the rain? Will I be able to settle into the lab and department successfully? However, the intimidation of a foreign environment quickly disappeared because of my wonderful lab group, supervisor and peers. Despite the stereotype of scientists being introverted and keeping to themselves, other students actively invited me to attend student socials and were generous with their time and help when I started learning new techniques.
I quickly settled into the department and the Oncology Student Network (student committee for our department) became an important part of my PhD life. One of the unique strengths of our department is the wonderful, compassionate and action-oriented cohort of students and postdocs who take the initiative to create events, socials, and resources for their peers. I quickly joined the student committee, and we organised student-only seminars where PhD students presented their work-in-progress research in an informal setting (with pizza and donuts, of course). We organised social and professional events where alumni in academia, industry and start-ups come to give their two-cents about life post-PhD. In general, we always checked in on each other where we could.
During the pandemic, we created a student blog and hosted online Zoom coffee chats so that students could share resources with each other and knew that they were not alone in struggling with the difficulties that covid had imposed on our degrees. It was ultimately the support of my peers, supervisor and lab group that allowed me to complete my PhD smoothly despite a pandemic, and they’ve made the UK feel like home. Everyone around me have been so eager to help, making every problem seem more manageable, and no scientific goal too ambitious to strive for. Being able to give back to newer students through the committee and scientific mentorship has been some of the most meaningful and fulfilling parts of my PhD experience at Oxford.
The importance of having activities outside of the PhD.
Another healthy trait of my fellow PhD students is that they have hobbies, interests or activities outside of their PhDs. I have learned that although sometimes it may be tempting to go into lab every day and to have a makeshift home at the bench, removing myself from research and recharging makes me a better scientist. It has allowed me to avoid burnout, and to re-approach my project when I am refreshed and energised. Other students who have had successful PhD projects and published great papers have also been the ones to take up a sport, to get involved in Oxford colleges, to connect with other communities or to attend some of the many events, societies and activities that Oxford and the UK have to offer. For me, I have been able to help with student welfare by being a Student Diversity Representative at my college (St Cross), as well as explore biotech entrepreneurship by entering start up pitch competitions with fellow students. I have also been given opportunities to explore my interests in venture capital for science through interning and completing a fellowship. By ensuring I have non-research interests outside my PhD, I have paradoxically brought more energy and curiosity into my scientific research with good mental health and a fulfilled sense of personal development.
Therefore, in summary, my advice to fellow students is to ensure that you surround yourself with an amazing network of peers and mentors who can support you during your PhD, and to give back to this community where you can, e.g., by mentoring new students and members. Moreover, my other message is to invest time, even if just a little, into non-PhD related interests, socials or activities to avoid burnout and to ensure good mental health.
Once again, I would like to thank BACR for this award and encourage students to make the best out of their PhDs.
Connect with Tiffany
BACR is a registered charity in England and Wales (289297)
c/o Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James’s, Cancer Genetics Building,
St James's University Hospital, Beckett Street, Leeds LS9 7TF