Understanding how our brains work, memories are formed, cognition and behaviors emerge and how these are affected by neurodegenerative conditions, remain some of the most demanding scientific challenges. While pursuing my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in India, I was increasingly drawn towards neuroscience. Neurobiology is indeed interdisciplinary and accommodates researchers from varied fields like biology, genetics, medicine and other natural sciences on a common platform. These reasons incentivized my interest in delving deeper into neurobiology, and thereafter I joined the Department of Zoology as a PhD student working with the Neural Network Development group.
As the birthplace of modern day neuroscience, Cambridge has a rich tradition in neuroscience research. It has nurtured several notable experiments in neurobiology, including the Hodgkin and Huxley experiment demonstrating the physical nature of the action potential. Cambridge also has a world-class community of developmental biologists and is the world hub of Drosophila research.
My PhD draws on these strengths and revolves around the fundamental question of how neurons, during normal nervous system development, adjust connections with other neurons and muscles in response to over-activation, in an attempt to prevent run-away excitation and the pathology associated with it. The fruit fly, Drosophila, is the ideal model system to undertake such research. Due to evolutionary conservation, Drosophila has a proven track record for discovering several genes and mechanisms that are important for the development and functioning of the nervous system in mammals, including humans. The host lab leads in the field of studying the development of the nervous system in Drosophila. The genetic tools that they have developed allow me to work with identified nerve cells and genetically manipulate and visualize these in ways not feasible in other model organisms. My PhD project necessitates an amalgamation of genetics, cellular and developmental neurobiology, thereby drawing on the strengths of the host lab and the neighbouring research teams in Cambridge. My research work receives the optimal stimulus from such a profound academic abundance offered by the Department of Zoology and the University of Cambridge.
I have evolved both personally and professionally during the past two years in the Department. When I first joined, I was an introvert. However, the immensely social and friendly environment in the department made settling in a cakewalk. Since then, Zoology has been nothing short of a second home. Not often can one find a concoction of brilliance and benevolence as prevalent in the department of Zoology. It is one of the best places to be during the formative years of one’s scientific career.
Edith Julieta Sarmiento-Ponce
My name is Edith Julieta Sarmiento-Ponce, and I am a third year PhD student at the Department of Zoology. I studied my undergraduate in Mexico, and my Master in Research in Marine Mammal Science at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
My research focuses on understanding the pathways that regulate phonotaxis in female crickets. Phonotaxis is the behavioral process in which male crickets of the species Gryllus bimaculatus emit a "calling song" by rubbing their wings together, with the objective of attracting a mate. In order to reach the females, the calling sound has to be significantly loud, reaching up to 95 dB (comparable to the intensity of a lawn mower). If the female hears the call and finds it attractive, she will approach the singing male. The male will then commence a courtship song with the same intensity but higher frequency, in an attempt to convince the female to mate. I quantify the females' response using a trackball system in the lab. We also analyze how the effect various acoustic parameters, such as the frequency tunning, sound intensity, and song pattern, influence on the phonotactic behaviour.
The University of Cambridge has numerous training courses, such as scientific writing, presentation skills, reference management (Endnote, Mendeley), digital imaging edition (Photoshop),vector graphic edition (Illustrator), statistical training, first aid courses, and many more.
For instance, I am a certified St. John's Ambulance First aider. As a PhD student you will have the opportunity to gain teaching experience during the "supervisions". During this personalised tutorials, undergraduate students receive direct feedback about weekly essays, and they reinforce the knowledge acquired during the lectures. Another teaching opportunity are the "demonstrations", these occur during laboratory practical sessions. As Demonstrators, PhD students are in charge of simplify any complexity on the hand-outs, and ask questions to the students during the experiment in order to encourage them to think about what is happening. Both supervisions and demonstrations are paid positions by the Department of Zoology. Attendance to Conferences is highly encouraged in order to improve our public speaking skills. I have presented my work in Cambridge, London, Denmark, and Argentina.
The College system in Cambridge is one of my favourite aspects. I am a member of Newnham College, which is one of the three female college at Cambridge. I have had the opportunity of being directly involved with college life, taking up the role of Social Secretary at the MCR (Middle Common Room) last year. We organised many events including bops (nightclub-style events), Latin Parties, swaps (formal dinners in other Colleges), punting days, day trips to other cities, among many others.
Being part of a College is not just an affiliation, but they become like your family, you will meet people that will stay your friends for life.
The University of Cambridge has a great variety of Student Societies, such as First Aid, Charities, Music, Drama, Politics, Photography, and Sports (rowing probably the most popular sport). There is a society for everyone! This year, I am participating as the Treasurer of the Cambridge University Photographic Society.
The Department of Zoology offers numerous opportunities for graduate projects, including field and lab based research. I feel that working at the Department of Zoology is the best academic decision I have ever made. My supervisor is very supportive, all the staff are friendly, and I feel encouraged to explore my full potential as a researcher in this Institution. I am grateful for being part of this superb Department.
(Photo credits: Orquidea Real Photobook - Julieta Sarmiento Photography)
I am in my second year of my PhD in the Behavioural Ecology Group, supervised by Prof Rebecca Kilner. My research focuses on the coevolutionary interaction between burying beetles and phoretic mites, more broadly, hosts and symbionts. Burying beetles have fascinated scientists for a long time because of their elaborate social behaviour.
In fact, burying beetles are not alone while most field beetles have been found associated with mites. Mites shape the immediate environments where beetles breed and evolve. However, until now the fitness effects of having mites (mutualistic, commensal, or parasitic) and its consequence remain poorly understood. In return, host burying beetles can profoundly affect the fitness of mites since they carry mites from one dead to another, where they jointly share the resources. Combined field observation and lab experimental manipulation, my PhD aims to uncover the ecology and evolution of burying beetle-mite interaction.
The Department of Zoology enables me to pursue my research interests, to reach my full potential, and to address research questions more deeply and broadly. There are brilliant and friendly people to discuss with in many occasions, such as seminars and journal clubs or even teatime and happy hours. Being exposed to people from a wide variety of research fields in addition to my own background, it also opens up several possibilities of collaboration by answering question from different angles.
Cambridge University as a whole, is an absolutely stimulating place to study and learn from others. While the departments provide support in academy, the colleges assist students in their daily life. College life also offers me an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and cultures, bringing together people from various disciplines.