Tuesday Feature Episode 37: Kunal Chopra

This week we’re interviewing an International PhD student who is doing some fascinating research into wound healing.

Please explain your research for the public in ten sentences or less.

I’m looking at the role of biomolecules known as reactive oxidative species. These have previously been shown to play a role in wound healing and we are studying how these species behave in the Zebrafish. Specifically we’re looking at how reactive oxidative species help with wound healing in the zebrafish.

The good thing about using zebrafish is that they are 60% genetically identical to humans and so we can use them as a very useful model of studying wound healing for humans. The other thing that I am studying is the involvement of hormones in wound healing because previous research has shown that certain hormones are actually beneficial in the wound healing process.

How will this benefit the general public?

It might be useful to mention here that I am funded by the healing foundation. The foundation is looking to fund research that will have general benefits to the public. To specifically answer the question, wound healing can be quite a problem in diseases like diabetes where it is delayed and wounds can be left open for long periods of time which can lead to other health complications. What we are doing here in the lab will essentially help us understand how we can help counter those problems in patients.

How did you first become interested in wound healing?

I have been very open-minded about what I have wanted to research but recently I really became interested in wound healing at the genetic level. There are a number of genes involved in wound healing during the developmental process and I became interested in these. Any given organism during its development has these sets of genes that helps it grow into a mature adult. The thing about wound healing is that many of the same genes and mechanisms get switched back on and it was my initial interest in developmental genes that got me more involved in wound healing.

Did you have any science heroes or people that inspired you?

No I don’t idolise anyone but there is one person that I really like and his name is Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel published a very beautiful book called ‘Art forms of nature’, which has some wonderful illustrations of different life forms. When I saw the symmetry in animals like jellyfish or butterflies, it inspired me to study developmental science to see how life grows this way.

How has studying here in Manchester helped you?

Oh it’s great! It felt very unreal in the beginning when I was offered the position to study here because this is a city that I had visited so many times and I never thought that I would get the chance to study here. The environment is great, the student support is fantastic and I have been lucky to get the healing foundation scholarship – so all in all it has been a very good experience.

What do you do outside of studying here?

I do a lot of travel photography. Whenever I get the chance, I try to escape to mainland Europe and try to photograph different cities. When I was young I used to read a lot of books but I think that the interest in them has faded now.


PhD Programme with A*STAR Institutes, Singapore

rothwellProfessor Dame Nancy Rothwell visited Singapore recently, accompanying David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, during a visit to promote UK Higher Education in Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

The Ministerial visit included meetings with a wide range of government offices and institutions in Singapore, many of which Dame Nancy visited during a personal trip in January 2013. Meetings were held with the National Research Foundation, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and key partner institutions such as The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

A highlight of the programme was the signing of an agreement between our university and A*STAR Graduate Academy for joint engagement in A*STAR’s Research Attachment Programme (ARAP). The University-wide agreement will extend the current engagement that the Faculty already has established (15 students registered to date). Students are registered in the Faculty and spend two years in Manchester and two years in a Singapore Research Institute. The Faculty funds their time in Manchester, and their time in Singapore is funded by A*STAR. Projects are identified by encouraging supervisors from Manchester and Singapore to collaborate and develop projects that create added value through two-centre research activities which advance joint research interests. Professor Martin Humphries, Dean and Vice-President of the Faculty, said:

“The University of Manchester is fortunate to have multiple levels of partnership in Singapore. I’m delighted that we were able to extend this through joint engagement with A*STAR’s ARAP programme which will support improved collaboration between researchers in Manchester and Singapore.”

Read more about our A*STAR programmes.

PhD student Sarah Fox gets SET for BRITAIN

setforbritainSarah Fox will have a chance to present a poster of her research to a range of politicians and a panel of expert judges at SET for BRITAIN 2014. SET for BRITAIN is a prestigious national science competition, run by The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in collaboration with a number of other institutions, which recognises and rewards Britain’s most talented early-career scientists. Sarah will exhibit her research poster entitled “EEG as a tool for early Alzheimer’s diagnostics and drug development”. Sarah’s work highlights the possibility to detect changes in communication between regions of the brain associated with memory formation prior to the appearance of usual Alzheimer’s diagnostic markers, such as memory alternations and build-up of amyloid plagues in the brain. This research could also be used to aid the development of drugs for the treatment of early Alzheimer’s.

Sarah’s poster will be judged alongside other early-stage researchers from across the UK in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Session of the competition. On taking part in the competition, Sarah said:

“I’m excited to be representing Manchester and bringing our research to the people who can influence policy. I hope I can use this opportunity to explain the necessity for both basic and applied research, especially with regard to neuroscience, where the exploration and understanding of basic brain mechanisms is essential to help focus future applied research.”

We wish Sarah luck in the competition!

Manchester graduate on course for Mars mission

marsDanielle Potter, a Life Sciences graduate who is now studying cancer research as a postgraduate at the University, is hoping to land a place on the first manned-mission to Mars. From 202,000 applicants, Danielle has become one of the final 1058 candidates. The 29-year-old will now be tested to see if she makes the grade and becomes one of the final 24. They then hope to embark on a one-way-trip to the red planet.

Mars One is a privately funded project set up by two Dutch men in 2011 with the aim of establishing permanent human life on Mars by 2025. Danielle, originally from Manchester’s Moss Side, only found out about the mission on application deadline day but signed up straight away. She said:

“What has always driven me with my research is that hunt to find something new. This is what I’m looking at in my research into cancer. When I learnt about this opportunity I thought it would be great to be a part of the most historic thing to ever happen in our galaxy.”

Danielle completed a Molecular Biology degree at the Faculty before being accepted for a PhD at the CRUK Manchester Institute. The former pupil at Trinity School in Manchester City Centre is in the third year of her PhD researching colorectal and lung cancer therapies. Her lab work looks at how different drugs interact and how they may be used to target the disease. She added:

“I never thought going to space would be within my grasp, but it would be great to do research there and look at something no one has ever seen before. My PhD has given me the skills to think outside the box and look at how to go about analysing data found on Mars. If I’m successful in getting into the next round I’ll get to train with some of the best of the best in the space industry and get a lot of experience with training in the Arctic Circle. With my scientific research background, I’d be trained to look for possible extra-terrestrial life on the planet.”

The Mars One team will now continue the shortlisting process. Danielle plans to finish her PhD studies before the training schedule begins.

Extinct robust birds of New Zealand not so robust after all

moabirdA study led by Faculty PhD student Charlotte Brassey has shown that the giant moa bird Dinornis robustus, which literally means ‘robust strange bird,’ may not have had robust bones after all. The leg bones of one of the tallest birds in history were actually more like its modern relatives the ostrich, emu, and rhea. In collaboration with Professor Richard Holdaway at The University of Canterbury, New Zealand, Brassey has shown that it was actually a much smaller species of moa that possessed the robust skeleton.

To determine whether the leg bones were overly thick and strong, the researchers had to define how heavy the birds were. Previously, scientists have done this by measuring the thickness of the leg bone and scaling up according to the size of living birds. This becomes a problem when the leg bones have unusual proportions. Ms Brassey explained:

“If we wanted to estimate the weight of a saber-toothed cat, no-one would suggest measuring canine tooth length and then scaling up the tooth size of your standard tabby. You’d end up with a ludicrously high estimate of the body weight of the saber-toothed cat. The same is true for moa. We knew that moa had disproportionately wide leg bones, yet previous estimates of their body mass had been based on those same bones. This probably resulted in overestimates.”

To avoid this, the researchers scanned whole skeletons. As predicted, the new estimates were considerably lower. Nonetheless, the largest moa still weighed in at 200kg; the equivalent of 30 Christmas turkeys.

The researchers then applied an engineering technique known as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to estimate how robust the moa really were. FEA crash-tests objects using computer simulations, and is usually used for tasks such as testing the strength of bridges or modelling the behaviour of Formula One cars. The FEA techniques and the new estimates suggest that different groups of moa solved the problems of supporting their huge bodies in different ways. Such fundamental differences suggest that the nine species of moa had long histories of independent evolution.