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Kate Watkins

2nd year student on the MRC DTP in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research

In 2012 I started my undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bath. My course included a professional placement so year 3 of my undergrad was spent working at GSK as a clinical scientist in the Respiratory drug performance unit. It was during this year that I decided a PhD would be the next step for me. My final year project at Bath was spent in Professor Edward Feil’s lab. My research involved investigating the bacterial species found in cosmetics and the presence of staphylococcus small colony variants using both laboratory and computational techniques.

In terms of a PhD I was looking for a programme that would put me outside of my comfort zone so I could build on the skills I felt I was lacking. The MRC DTP masters year certainly lived up to its title (interdisciplinary!) and my expectations, helping me to improve my statistics, coding and physics knowledge as well as experimental biology techniques. The best and most important thing about this course and the MRC program at Warwick in general is the team feeling and support system. Other students on the MRC DTP have become my very close friends, we have great fun together even when times are tough. Chalk talks and MRC skills sessions are a particular highlight for me as we have the chance to learn about exciting science and meet external speakers in a relaxed and social environment.

During the Masters course I undertook two mini projects. My first project was with Marco Polin in Physics. Here I was able to design, make and test a microfluidic device that mimics a lung-blood vessel interface. Ultimately, I wanted to be able to use this device as a lung infection model. This task seemed daunting at first because I had no prior experience in a physics lab and I barely knew anything about microfluidics, however with the support of the lab I was able to achieve more than I expected. At the start no one expected me to be an expert in this field. By the end of this project I felt I was well prepared to use this microfluidic model for experiments independently.

My second project was supervised by Meera Unnikrishnan (Warwick Medical School). This project centred around the idea that S. aureus manipulates host cells by the secretion of a wide range of toxins, as many bacteria do. For controlled export of the toxins into the host, bacteria require secretory machines in their cell membrane. S. aureus has a specialised secretion machine known as type VII Esat-6 secretion system (Ess). Ess was originally discovered in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pathogen that causes tuberculosis. I was investigating how the staphylococcus type VII secretion system can manipulate macrophages. I spent my time doing cloning which resulted in an MRSA strain with various type VII secretion system effector proteins deleted. I also carried out infection and survival assays in macrophages and confocal imaging.

I chose both these miniprojects with the idea that they will fit together as an interdisciplinary PhD. I am currently in the first year of my PhD and enjoying it thoroughly. I am continuing to investigate the behaviours of S. aureus with mutant VII secretion systems within in vitro and in vivo infection models. I am also using physics and engineering-based approaches to develop the human lung mimic in the laboratory for the purpose of studying S. aureus persistent infection, for example pneumonia, in physiologically relevant conditions.

MRD DTP in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research

How to apply

MSc course




Kate Watkins