PhD students tell their stories of industry and academic collaboration.
CASE Studentships are PhD training grants where students work with an industrial partner in addition to university-based academic research. A core part of BBSRC's training strategy, they provide students with an experience that allows them to develop business awareness in a collaborative context. Since 1994, BBSRC has funded more than 4000 CASE Studentships, bringing students together with top universities, research institutions and hundreds of companies in the biosciences.
Three Q&A features explore the experiences graduates encounter as they complete their projects. In this, the third, Jessal Patel works with Unilever and University College London (UCL) to understand the biochemistry of bone loss and growth. In the first, Stephanie Heard develops a new fungal pathogen detection system with the University of Manchester and Syngenta. In the second, Kelly Rooke splits her time between the University of Oxford and GSK to delve into the epigenetics of inflammation.
What is your CASE Studentship project?
It was a collaboration between Unilever and Professor Tim Arnett's lab at University College London (UCL). I was investigating the effects of hypothermia on bone cell development and function. This was undertaken using assays developed at UCL, as well as Unilever's expertise on protein and gene expression.
Was there an applied angle?
It was more about understanding with regards to bone cell function in a low temperature environment; however, there was a clinical aspect. Data published over 60 years ago showed that as people age their core temperature decreases, so there could be a predisposing factor for bone-thinning diseases in the elderly, such as osteoporosis, be a reduction in core temperature?
When you expose cells to low temperatures, formation and activity of bone-forming osteoblasts is reduced. Interestingly, bone-resorbing osteoclasts increase in number and activity. Taken together these effects could culminate in a reduction in bone mass in vivo.
How was the industry and academic mix?
The CASE Studentship was really good. The project did have some aspects which fitted into the company's interests it was a case of "you guys are in charge" with regards to the path the project took.
What was you previous background?
Mine was unusual as I did my degree in Pharmacy, which is usually done over a year in a qualifying industry in pharmacy, but I did six months in a pharmacy and six months at Pfizer in Sandwich, Kent, giving me the industrial and clinical expertise prior to starting a PhD.
How was it flipping back and forth from academia to industry and back again?
During the CASE Studentship it didn't seem too dissimilar because the Unilever group I worked in covered primary research, the same as at university, so the transition was easy. I also found that people at Unilever were keen to learn what I was working on. Many were very helpful in making suggestions for experiments I could try out and imparted a lot of useful information to me.
What's the best thing about working in industry?
In industry they have a customer base that equals access to money! They have better equipment and have the budget to purchase consumables which we would dream of having access to in an academic lab.
And the best in academia?
An advantage of academia is that it is not limited in the number of research areas. If you've got a great idea then you can go for it. The university did a variety of things, and now I am now very focused and my research always has to have a business angle, whereas in academia it's more a question that needs answering.
Did you encounter any problems publishing papers?
Not really, manuscripts did have to go through the Unilever's clearance system, though suggestions made during this process did not detract from the main angle of either paper. The first paper was published just after my viva, and the second paper was published a couple of months ago. That was due more to me writing the manuscript and taking my time than Unilever doing anything – it's all my fault really!
How was it working with different supervisors?
It went well because I was the guy in the middle controlling both sides, so we didn't have many meetings where my academic and industrial supervisors were together. We would have regular contact, especially with the university supervisor.
How long did you spend with the industrial partner?
I did a lot of the experiments on and off, and being at Unilever Colworth I would go up one week or two at a time. They did not have facilities or expertise to culture the cells I used. It worked out much easier to collect the samples at UCL and send them directly to the site. Overall, I was really happy with the collaboration we had.
What kind of skills did you develop?
I was lucky enough to do microarrays as well as Luminex assays and ELISAs, all of which were not possible for me to do at UCL. In addition Unilever has a high-throughput qPCR machine, which can run over 9000 samples in one run – not many places have one of these so I was fortunate enough to be able to use it for my samples. The skills I developed at UCL were in bone cell biology and culturing these cells.
Did you do any entrepreneurial or engagement work?
In the four years (2007-2012) of my CASE Studentship I did do a BBSRC-funded policy placement internship at the Royal Society, and being one of the first to go there. It was a break from my research, looking at neuroscience in education. There was lots of expertise on hand, and it was during the UK General Election in 2010 and the Royal Society's 350-year celebration.
So the CASE Studentship still allowed you the freedom to do this?
It was a completely random thing to do, and I was concerned that someone might say "focus on your PhD" but both my academic and industrial supervisors were keen that I apply and it got me out of the lab for a while!
Would you recommend a CASE Studentship?
Yes, because you get the expertise of an industrial company and links to new opportunities. I think people will gain expertise and the ability to question whether to stay in academia or go to industry science. This sheds light into other areas and industry situations. Academia and industry both have pros and cons, and you get to see both sides which is good.
And I suppose the good thing with CASE Studentships is that you get a little bit more money too!
What are you working on now?
I am back at Unilever in a different team working as a postdoc in collaboration with King's College London. Unilever moved away from their work on bone health three-quarters of the way through my PhD, but the skills I gained from the CASE Studentship were transferable and enabled me to transfer into a different Unilever Group in cardiovascular health.