Benjamin Stutchbury is a PhD student in the Faculty. As you’ll see below, it took him a while to find the topic he wanted to study, but now that he has he seems to excelling.
With ambitions of being involved in science communication, Ben has already been involved in some exciting events. In fact, the day after this article goes live he will be performing in the national final of the FameLab competition. You can see his North West Final performance in one of the videos below.
We’re confident that you’ll be hearing Ben’s name in the future, so we thought we’d get in on the ground floor and interview him for this week’s Tuesday Feature.
Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
I research how a cell in your body is able to understand the environment that it’s in.
Particularly how it’s able to understand the mechanical properties of the environment; so how soft it is, or how rigid it is. For example, brain is very soft and bone is very rigid. Cells in these areas of your body need to respond to, and change how they react to, changes in these different environments.
It’s difficult to say, really. It’s a very, very young area of research. It was only in the last ten years that this idea of cells responding to forces rather than chemicals has really emerged as a field. So at the moment it’s more that we’re trying to understand how they’re actually doing it and what’s actually going on.
Eventually, where it will benefit people is cancer. Which is kind of what every researcher says.
It’s about how cells sense and respond to changes in the mechanical properties of their environment and cancer is a stiffer environment than normal tissue. That’s why you can feel a cancer lump underneath your skin.
Cancer cells are stiffer than normal tissue. They respond differently to this stiffer environment, and that’s one of the reasons they divide faster and move faster. Which is why cancer is so good at killing.
Can we ask you how you first got interested in your research area?
Yeah, it kind of happened by accident to be honest.
I always thought I was interested in immunology, the study of the immune system. Then I went and did an immunology placement in a lab for three months and absolutely hated it.
I went into my final year of undergrad knowing that I wanted to carry on doing science, but with no idea of what I wanted to do. And then I kind of stumbled upon this area of, I guess they call it, mechanobiology; the cells and mechanical forces.
It was quite interesting and different to anything I’d seen before because it’s such a young area. I did a placement in a lab as a kind of try out before doing a PhD and really enjoyed it so decided to stick with it as a PhD topic.
Not really, to be honest.
This might be a new one, but I was actually more inspired by a disease than anything else. I have type 1 diabetes and I was diagnosed when I was eleven. When I was twelve I decided that my life dream was going to be to cure diabetes.
I kind of went down the path of doing science, and was interested in it enough to want to carry on looking into curing diabetes. Then I did a module in second year about metabolism and metabolic diseases and found them really dull. So then I decided that diabetes was really boring.
But actually, my desire to sort of carry on researching other things kind of stuck.
And then I chose immunology, and hated immunology. Everyone was getting a bit worried that I hated all biology but still wanted to do it. And then I found my area to focus on.
But I don’t think I have an individual who kind of fuelled my desire to do science, it was more my own personal circumstances.
Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?
I do a lot of sport. If I hadn’t done science, if I hadn’t got a PhD offer, my fall back was to train as an outdoor instructor. Mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking, and that kind of thing. I do a lot of rock climbing and mountaineering.
Oh, and squash. I play a lot of squash, kind of three or four times a week. If it involves an activity, I’ll generally be happy to do it.
How has working at the Faculty benefited your research?
Massively, I think.
The main reason for that is the size of the Faculty and the huge variety of different areas of science that are being carried out within this one Faculty.
As I said I kind of came into this not knowing what area I wanted to go into. The PhD I’m doing allowed the opportunity to go into and try out a couple of different labs before choosing one to settle in.
There aren’t many universities in the UK that offer that kind of PhD. It’s becoming more popular now, but it’s still not that common. So the fact that Manchester allowed you to do a PhD where you could sample labs before choosing one means you can find out if you enjoy the topic, if you like doing the techniques that you have to do, if you like the people you’re working with, and if you get on with the supervisor.
That’s quite a unique thing for Manchester, I think. It was a big influence on me choosing here for my PhD placement.
And so we come to the end of another Tuesday Feature. Our thank yous go to Ben and we wish him a great deal of luck in the FameLab final.
Ben’s is a great story, and it’s fascinating to see how a love for science drove him on even when he struggled to find the exact topic that suited him. That’s pretty inspirational! If you want to hear more from him, please head over to his blog.
Anyway, enough mushiness for now. Thank you, Ben – and thank you all for reading. Please come back next week!
Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe and Ben Stutchbury, Images courtesy of Nick Ogden and Ben Stutchbury