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Myelin, methods and macaroni: my life as an MS researcher

Sheahan Arnott

Being a scientist requires dedication, resilience, and diligent application of ‘the scientific method’ but most of all, motivation.

My motivation comes from reading about people with MS and their daily lives. Knowing more about the people I could help with my research keeps me going and working hard to get results.

The secrets of science

What really happens behind those ‘authorised persons only’ doors? Is it a bunch of mad scientists with unruly hair laughing maniacally as they watch their test tubes bubble over?

I’m sorry to disappoint but the reality is much less ‘Frankenstein’ than that. Inside a lab, you’ll find a group of researchers at their benches, working to answer their scientific questions using a protocol (a kind of science recipe).

A day as a scientist varies, but I’ll give you a sneak peek of what a day in my life – a PhD student studying MS – looks like.

Woke up, fell out of bed

7am Wake up.

7.30am Actually wake up. Eat breakfast, pack lunch, and cycle to the lab.

8.30am Get into the office. Coffee.

9am Meet with my supervisor, or ‘Principal Investigator’ to check my progress. We talk about what I’ve seen in recent experiments and discuss how to move the project forward.

Here's the science bit

10am Get started on experiments. I’m about to tell you what scientists do in labs. Get ready, because it’s… fairly straightforward.

In general, scientists have a question (in my case, to determine how a specific protein might be involved in myelin repair) and they develop a plan to answer it with the best possible methods. Then they apply these methods to their sample of interest, and use the best technology to gather data for analysis and interpretation.

This process usually leads to a follow-up question. Generally, a set of experiments will answer only part of the big question. To have a major finding you have to do lots of separate experiments, with different tissue or cells, using a variety of methods. Record, rinse, repeat.

Varied afternoons

12pm Lunch. I usually bring my own, but can sometimes be found eating at the hospital café – the macaroni and cheese is too delicious!

1pm Go to a weekly seminar. This is one of my favourite parts about being a researcher – watching interesting talks by expert scientists, whether they’re working next door or on the other side of the country.

2pm Reading time. Reading about new findings is important. Knowing what other scientists are doing can help inspire new ideas and foster collaboration between labs.

3pm Back to the lab. I’ll usually finish up anything I started in the morning, or start a new experiment.

Busy days, busy nights

6pm Home time. At this point I’m ready to get my slippers on and watch TV with a massive dinner. Then I’ll remember I should probably go to the gym, do some editing duties for the Edinburgh University Science Magazine, attend my French class, or head to the pub with some friends.

So, whilst I don’t live up to the ‘mad scientist’ cliché, I am crazy about science, and I think everyone should be – it has the power to change lives.

Alessandra Dillenburg is a scientist and PhD student at Edinburgh University. Help us support researchers like Alessandra.