Interviews with Scientists: Sophie Millar
Next in our Interviews with Scientists, meet Sophie Millar! Sophie is submitting her PhD at The University of Nottingham in just four weeks’ time. Before starting her PhD, she did her degree in Human Nutrition at University College Dublin. During this time she completed a 10-month research placement at the University of East Anglia in Norwich where she pretty much got to experience what it was like to be a PhD student – and this encouraged her to apply for a PhD when she got back!
During her PhD, Sophie also did a three-month internship in Dublin and worked as a scientific consultant for a small, cannabinoid biotech company called Artelo BioSciences. This was a great experience which provided insight into life outside academia, and opened her mind to other types of jobs that she could do after her PhD. Sophie is honoured to be starting a five-month internship at the European Parliament in October, in their Scientific Foresight Unit – a dream step for her, as during her PhD she became very interested in policy and evidence based decisions in parliament. Congratulations, Sophie!
Hi Sophie, great to speak to you! Firstly, start by telling us a bit more about your PhD...
My PhD thesis has been focusing on the concept of bone as an endocrine organ. I think this is really cool and it is a reminder that our skeleton is a living organ, constantly changing, and actually does some very interesting stuff! For example, the hormone I am focusing on is called osteocalcin, it is produced in osteoblasts (bone forming cells) and is actually partly responsible for controlling whole body metabolism. It increases insulin sensitivity and production in the pancreas, and has also been associated with anxiety and even fertility (but not yet in humans!)
My PhD is looking at whether it has an active role in cardiovascular health and disease. To do this, I cultured human vascular cells, added in osteocalcin, and measured a bunch of endpoints in experimental conditions such as angiogenesis, inflammation, calcification and hyperglycaemia. Although overall I’ve enjoyed my PhD, unfortunately I found that osteocalcin does… nothing. Within vascular cells osteocalcin did not affect the end points I examined! This has been quite disappointing, but interesting nonetheless! And as often said to make myself feel better – a negative result is still a result! At least future PhDs won’t endure the same as me! Alongside my PhD, I’ve also been involved in many studies on cannabinoid medicines and I’ve published some systematic reviews on this topic which I found really interesting and topical.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
I always wanted to be involved in a health and science-related field. As a teenager, I worked in a pharmacy and loved this, and that’s where I also got interested in nutrition. I did my degree in human nutrition and then ended up focusing more on pharmacology during my PhD. I always enjoyed biology in school, and during university I loved learning about diseases – even if I didn’t do so well in the exams! It found it all really interesting and knew I wanted to do research – this was further enhanced when I got to do a 10 month placement in a lab at the University of East Anglia.
What have you enjoyed most about your PhD?
What I’ve enjoyed most is the transitioning and growing up that’s happened in the last four years… I started off not knowing what to do, unsure, a bit too hopeful, and not knowing where I was going. Now, I still don’t know what I’m doing all the time, but I know that this is OK! And that things will not go as expected, but the science is what it is! I’ve enjoyed the friends I’ve made along the way… and figuring out what I enjoy, and what I don’t enjoy as much.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Don’t over plan. Have a focused area but be open-minded that it may (will) change. Things will take a LOT longer than you expect. Be patient in the beginning, you WILL get your feet off the ground after a while and it will be rewarding in the end. As much of a cliché as it is – PhDs are a rollercoaster and full of highs and lows. Don’t panic – you just have to ride it through.
What's the most important lesson you've learned in your PhD?
To be open-minded. Say yes to things – you’ll never know what you like until you’ve tried it, nothing is set in stone.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Probably a bit of a boring answer, but my publications! I worked hard for them and the first time I saw my name in print – it really did feel good.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing life scientists and their work at the moment?
I think something that I hear more and more about is a lack of multidisciplinary research between sectors. For example, physiology labs that could benefit hugely from mathematical modelling or exploiting new technology – but we need people to bridge these gaps. I think this will improve in the future and offers a huge opportunity for collaboration and speeding up research.
Tell us a bit more about what you are working on at the moment...
At the moment I’m running my final experiments for my PhD, which involves treating human vascular cells with high glucose which leads to endothelial dysfunction and impaired insulin signalling (like in diabetes). I am then seeing whether the addition of osteocalcin, the bone hormone, can improve this situation.
I’m also carrying on a project that was started by an undergraduate student in our lab on the anti-inflammatory potential of a novel oestrogen receptor called GPR30 in human vascular cells.
Also, on the side, I am helping another PhD student carry out a systematic review on the evidence for cannabidiol treatment in brain tumours.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
Every day is different – sometimes I work from home doing writing, other days I’ll be in the lab all day running cell culture experiments and running immunoassays.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
I like to travel, either to Dublin to visit friends and family or to Brussels to visit my boyfriend! I like hiking, camping, reading, the seaside, visiting relatives, cooking, and drinking… Fairly typical!
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
That’s hard to imagine, but probably something hands-on / DIY… like a dressmaker!
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
The cannabinoid research I’ve done is really interesting at the moment of course, because of all the media attention it has had recently. CBD is in the shops everywhere, in every crazy format. It’s important to dispel myths and get the truth out there about the benefits of CBD as a medicine, but it is also frustrating to see it being branded as shampoos etc. and in a way being discredited. The evidence base is constantly increasing and there are so many clinical trials at the moment within CBD and other cannabinoid medicine, it will be really exciting to see how things change over the next few years.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
Professor David Smith (on Twitter: @professor_dave) – I actually am not in his field of work at all, but he is massively inspirational through sharing his personal life and struggles on Twitter.
What’s your favourite science quote?
It’s not strictly science related, but I do love: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life” by Mark Twain. I’m not sure who the original accreditation goes to.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
This is too difficult to answer, haha!
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Sophie! We wish you the very best of luck with your upcoming internship.
Sophie has been a past member of The Physiological Society, The British Atherosclerosis Society, The British Cardiovascular Society, The Bone Research Society, The International Cannabinoid Research Society. Her research funding has come from BBSRC.
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