This is a landmark year in the history of Oxford University. This October, we collectively mark a century since the first women collected their degrees in the Sheldonian Theatre. Here at DPAG, we interviewed some of our female graduate students, each at different stages of their studies, to find out what it's really like to study at DPAG and Oxford and gain a snapshot into their motivations, goals and the women who inspire them.
Antara Majumdar is a first year DPhil student in the Lak Group, joining us from the Cardin lab at Yale University where she was a Postgraduate Research Associate. She is also a member of the University of Oxford's Cortex Club Committee.
Her DPAG research project focuses on the role of prefrontal cortical circuits in risky decision-making behaviour.
Ester Paolocci is a second year DPhil student in the Zaccolo Group, who had previously studied at St. Andrews (undergraduate) and St. George's University of London (Masters).
Her research project looks at the relationship between cAMP signalling and Polycystin function, particularly in the scope of Autosomal Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD), the fourth most common cause of end-stage renal disease, for which there is currently no cure.
Naroa Ibarra-Aizpurua is a first year DPhil student in the OPDC's Wade-Martins Group, who also graduated this year with a Masters of Science in Neuroscience from Oxford University.
She is studying the role of astrocytes in Parkinson's disease pathogenesis, as well as how they interact with neurons during the development of the disease. To approach this, she uses induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived dopaminergic neuron and midbrain astrocyte co-cultures.
Sonali Munshaw is a third and final year MRC graduate student in the Smart Group, who formerly worked as a Research Assistant for the lab.
Her research focuses on cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death worldwide; poor understanding of the underlying mechanism limits production of effective pharmacological therapeutics. Her project focuses on identifying these underlying signalling mechanisms and how they are regulated in health and disease.
Why did you choose to pursue scientific research at Oxford?
Antara: The Neuroscience program at DPAG offers a superb research environment that will allow me to learn from some of the top neuroscientists in the field, train alongside other future neuroscientists to achieve my scientific aspirations, and help inspire the next generation of neuroscientists grow to become the leaders they were meant to be.
Ester: Oxford is known to be one of the best universities and research institutions in the world. The resources I have been given so far, here at Oxford, have been limitless. In my first semester of my PhD I was taught how to code using Python and R, and expanded my knowledge in bioinformatics, statistics and calculus. I was given tools that a researcher in a wet-lab might never come across in their laboratory, but which in reality are extremely helpful in carrying forward your research questions and expanding your scientific knowledge. Last Hilary term, Professor Bruce Alberts gave a zoom lecture to my classmates and I. I was honoured to attend a lecture given by the man who literally wrote the textbook on cell biology. Oxford is a place where you are constantly surrounded by the best minds in the world and where the most exciting, most novel research is happening every day.
Naroa: I decided to study my DPhil in Oxford because of the rich scientific community it has, both in general and in the field of neuroscience, and also because of the help, support and advice that is provided to postgraduate students throughout their entire degree.
Sonali: I always wished to pursue a career in medical sciences and was very fascinated even as a child about cells and how they function. After completing my MSC in biochemistry I moved to the UK. I started my scientific career at Oxford as a Research Assistant (RA) at Gray's Institute of Radiation and Oncology. Eventually, I joined Nicola Smart's group as RA. I told her that I aspired to do a DPhil; she motivated me to work on my CV and encouraged me to present my work at various meetings and conferences where I met and heard about the research from experts in the field. In 2018, I earned the only departmentally funded MRC studentship to pursue my DPhil.
What is it like to study at DPAG?
Antara: My first impression of DPAG is that the environment here is collaborative and supportive. The department offers many opportunities for students and staff looking to engage with the wider scientific community and there are many excellent talks organised by the department and the Cortex Club.
Ester: You know DPAG has been around for centuries, always with the scope of scientific research. You see old instruments passing through the hallway, original microscopes used by the pioneers of research. Pictures of Nobel laureates who worked in DPAG hang on the wall. Just last year, Jennifer Doudna, who won this year's Nobel prize in Chemistry for the discovery of CRISPR with Emmanuelle Charpentier, came to give a lecture in DPAG. How exciting - two women in science who won the Nobel prize for such a complex technique; that has so many implications for future research as well as medical treatment!
Naroa: DPAG is the perfect environment for young researchers starting their research careers, such as myself. It has a very friendly working environment, and people are always willing to help with any administrative or experimental issues I may have. Moreover, DPAG contains a large number of research groups with significantly different research topics, and it is very interesting to learn what other groups and students in the department are working on.
Sonali: Two years into my DPhil, I have had the opportunity to present my work at several national and international meetings and won a number of prestigious awards including Young Investigator Runners up at the British Cardiovascular Society meeting in 2019 and Best E-Poster at the International Vascular Biology meeting this year. Studying at Oxford has provided me with opportunities that I never dreamt of and my journey so far has been both exciting and challenging. Working around a young family is challenging, but at DPAG my fellow researchers and PI are supportive and encouraging.
What career do you plan to pursue after your studies here?
Antara: After completing my DPhil studies, I plan to join a systems neuroscience lab for my postdoctoral training. Ultimately, I aspire to build a long-term academic career in an excellent research environment. I am interested in becoming an investigator studying how inhibitory neurons (also known as interneurons) shape state-dependent activity across multiple cortical areas and fine-tune the information flow among these regions.
Ester: I do love being in the lab and trying to find answers to my own questions, so maybe I would like to remain in academia. For now, however, I will focus on my PhD and see where that will take me in the future.
Naroa: After I finish my studies in Oxford, I would like to continue with my career in research and academia.
Sonali: After finishing my DPhil, I wish to continue my scientific career in academia and have my own research lab someday.
Do you have any role models?
Antara: My former research mentor at Yale University, Dr Jessica Cardin, has been a huge role model because her work in the systems neuroscience field is innovative and extremely interdisciplinary. I admire how she communicates her research goals with a wider audience and fuels exciting collaborations with other neuroscientists. I have not only learned about neuroscience from Jess, but also developed an interest in being a mentor in my field. As a woman in science, I plan to not only develop the “soft skills” that are essential for academic research, but also work tirelessly to ensure that science is communicated more effectively to the broader community and help to bring more diversity in all areas of the scientific field.
Ester: One that comes to mind is the Italian neurobiologist, Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). She was born into a Jewish family and was persecuted under Mussolini’s government. As a child she was torn between becoming a writer or a scientist, but then saw a friend struggle with cancer and she made up her mind that she wanted to help people. At school, I was also torn between literature and science and chose science for similar reasons. During WW2 she went into hiding but continued to do research in her bedroom. If only I could have done the same during the COVID-19 lockdown! Post-war, Rita Levi-Montalcini went on to be the head of several scientific institutions but also volunteered her medical and scientific expertise to the Italian government, where in 2001 she was made a senator for life. This resonates with current times, where scientists are often overlooked by the government in matters of public health. Additionally, though I would like a family of my own, Levi-Montalcini never married or had children, not only setting an example as an excellent scientist, but showing girls that it’s okay to not pursue domestic ambitions if that’s not a priority. One of my favourite quotes by her is: “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.”
Naroa: I admire every single woman who has pursued her passion for science and has chosen a career in research.
Sonali: My role model is my mother who always inspires me and says: "There is always hope if you are prepared to work hard and nothing is impossible."