Postgrad Lives: 'When you get a good result, you're flying for weeks'

Jessica Cooke, 30, is doing a PhD in embryonic stem cell research at Bristol University.

How did you come to do this PhD?

I'd always wanted to do research, but didn't get the grades I needed in my first degree – a BSc in biomedical science at the University of the West of England – to do a PhD, so I worked as a haematologist in Bristol, analysing blood samples in a hospital laboratory for four years. Then I got a place on an MSc in neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, which I did part time over two years. In the second year, I got a job as a research assistant in the lab at King's where they derived one of the UK's first embryonic stem cell lines. This helped me get accepted for my PhD.

So what exactly is your research all about?

My supervisors and I are interested in the degeneration of neural [central nervous system] cells, particularly cells in the retina, which detect and convey light to the brain. I've been developing a technique using embryonic stem cells from mice, trying to induce them to turn into photoreceptors, which takes several steps. The gold standard, which we're aiming at, is transplanting these cells back into an animal model to see if we can restore some vision.

What do you do day-to-day?

There's a lot of time at the lab bench trying to perfect different techniques and analyse what the cells become at each step. We keep the cells incubated in special labs where we regulate their micro-environment and feed them every day.

Have you enjoyed the PhD experience?

All PhDs are roller coasters and there are days when you ask yourself why you're doing it, but then you get a good result and you are flying through the air for weeks. And I've also been really lucky to get sent to some big conferences – one in Washington and one in Florida – and when you get world leaders in eye development asking you about your research, that's fantastic.

What next?

After I finish my PhD, which is just around the corner now, I've been funded for six months to continue my work and see if we can get these cells transplanted into mice. I'm hoping it'll translate into human therapy, of course, so that we'll be able to show a safe way of restoring human sight. I love the research and I really want to stay in this field, perhaps starting up a research group of my own. I'd also love to go to the States, especially since Barack Obama has lifted the ban on public funding of stem-cell research.

What has the PhD cost?

I was lucky to get all my university fees, research costs and living costs funded by a grant from the James Tudor Foundation, which has come to between £45,000 and £50,000 over the three years. I also got some help with travel costs to conferences from the National Eye Research Centre.