Life as a Researcher - Sheila Olendo Barasa

MRC DTP Sheila

I am a PhD student on the Medical Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership Programme in Dr Jun Wang’s, Professor Fran Balkwill's and Dr Lovorka Stojic's labs at the Barts Cancer Institute. My project is a combination of bioinformatics and wet lab experimental components and focuses on characterising disease-associated long non-coding RNAs in high grade serous ovarian cancer.

I obtained a BSc in Anatomical Sciences with Industrial Experience at the University of Manchester before doing an MSc in Cancer & Molecular and Cellular Biology at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London.

During my time at BCI, I have worked closely with varied supervisors across diverse departments and universities. This has given me a comprehensive understanding of the wider work being carried out in the cancer ecosystem and has enabled me to navigate my PhD project holistically. This has also been key in establishing a strong scientific network and forging new and potentially life-long friendships.

Last year when asked for International Women’s Day who my role model was, I buckled and researched women whom I wish to emulate. Yet it dawned on me that my female role model had been in my vicinity all along. One of my biggest inspirations, with one of the brightest minds, has been my colleague Atiya Sarmin - the president of QMUL WISE, with whom I have co-authored a publication, teamed up with on the YES20 scheme and clocked many memories over Franco Manca’s pizza.

One of the highlights of my project was in being able to detect the expression of a prime gene candidate that I selected using computational techniques, in ovarian cell lines models. This was a very important milestone, having spent the first two years of my PhD analysing 100+ gene candidates using various computational analysis. I was also able to successfully reduce the expression of this gene, in these cell lines, which is allowing me to determine its function.

I was one of the key committee organisers of the annual and bespoke PhD to Consulting conference that was hosted by Imperial College London in 2019. This event has hosted renowned consultancies ranging from generalists like McKinsey to Life Sciences specialists like IQVIA. This conference brought PhD students from varied disciplines across the UK together, which provided a very enriching and unique experience. I was also recently shortlisted and looking forward to presenting at the Soapbox Science London event this summer.

I transitioned to the wet lab component of my project at a time that unfortunately coincided with the first national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I lost months of essential lab work needed to establish the in-vitro model systems for my investigations. I mitigated the impact by capitalising on the bioinformatic components, scaling down our lab experiments and fortunately, Queen Mary has offered to extend our projects by 3 months.

I wish had been more vigilant about sandwiching my PhD with a year in industry. I would have loved to experience research in a biopharma corporation.

The beauty of a PhD is not only in the pursuit of scientific knowledge but in re-opening graduate student opportunities. I am very curious and have diverse interests, which I can materialise using the transferable skills gained from my PhD. I am currently keeping my options open in both industry and academia and will keep you posted!