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Name: Rachelle Binny
Degree: BSc Mathematical Biology
Graduation: 2012
Employer: University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Job title: PhD student


About my time in Dundee

I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at Dundee and graduated with my degree in Mathematical Biology in 2012. What I especially liked about the course was that it allowed me to combine the two fields I was most passionate about. As well as having lectures in both maths and biology, I had practical sessions in the wet lab and the computer lab and so by the end of my degree I had built up a broad range of skills. While it was important to work hard, I also felt I needed a good balance between work and play - though finding this balance is often easier said than done. The University Rucksack Club took up a lot of my free time but I loved every minute of it. A weekend in the hills was just what I needed to revive me and renew my energy for the next week. There were also plenty of opportunities for the summer vacations, including volunteering abroad through the D.A.R.E. Society and being part of the Dundee iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team for the 2011 iGEM competition.

What I do now

I am now studying towards a PhD at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. My research involves developing a mathematical model that describes the behaviour of invading cells, for example tumour cells invading into their surrounding tissue. So far my work has been mostly theoretical but I will also have the opportunity to run my own experiments with live cells in the lab. This is a field of biology that I'm particularly interested in and it's brilliant to see how the maths I learned in lectures can be put to good use and applied in such a novel way. I have also taken the opportunity to do some tutoring for first year students and have found it to be a very rewarding experience. As well as helping me brush up on my own maths knowledge, tutoring has given me some insight into what it might be like to lecture. Another important part of postgraduate research is attending and presenting at conferences. While this can seem quite daunting at first, it's a great opportunity to present and receive feedback on your work, network with other researchers in your field and keep up-to-date with the latest findings.

How I got the job

I was really keen to find a PhD that would allow me to continue studying both maths and biology, in particular cell biology. If I had had a specific project in mind I could have proposed it to a suitable supervisor and sought funding for my project. However, as I had not decided on a particular project, I instead kept an eye out for advertised studentships that might interest me. While finding an inspiring research topic was my main priority, the place I would study was also an important deciding factor (I love the outdoors and NZ has a lot to offer on that front). Most new scholarships and postgraduate research opportunities are advertised online, for example on university websites or on websites for research societies which is where I found my PhD project. In order to apply I had to submit my CV accompanied by a covering letter reinforcing why I thought I was particularly suited to this project. I didn't have an interview though interviews are usually part of the PhD application process. One thing that I felt really boosted my application was the iGEM summer project I had taken part in between 3rd and 4th year. It gave me experience in both modelling and labwork as well as real insight into what it might be like to do research. It also boosted more general skills such as presenting so gave me lots to talk about in my application. I would thoroughly recommend iGEM or similar summer projects to anyone contemplating a research career!

Advice for current students

Don't be afraid to aim high! If you've worked hard and your grades reflect that, you could go anywhere and do anything. It's all about showing a potential employer or research supervisor that you've got what it takes. When it comes to looking for jobs or opportunities for further study, the earlier you start thinking about it the better. In the case of applying for postgraduate research scholarships, many have deadlines quite early in the academic year so it's a good idea to keep an eye out so as not to miss out on any opportunities. Also bear in mind that if you are planning on working or studying abroad, organising travel (e.g. applying for visas) can take weeks or even months. Finally, deciding on a career path can be quite daunting. Don't feel that the career you choose when you leave university has to be one you'll stick with for life. It's ok to start down one path then change direction and try something else if you decide that career is not for you.

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