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Reflections of a BBSRC PhD student: Communicating the challenges of cell culture

Copyright: BBSRC
Copyright: BBSRC
Natalie, a final year PhD student, in cell culture labs. Copyright: BBSRC

Natalie Talbot, a final year PhD student, provides an insight into the unique challenges of studying for a bioscience PhD and discusses her love-hate relationship with cell culture work.

BBSRC provides professional internships for PhD students who are looking for a work placement experience. In April 2019, Miss Natalie Talbot a PhD biochemistry student from the University of Kent joined BBSRC’s Communications and Engagement Team for a six week placement.

Natalie is studying for her PhD in biochemistry with the University of Kent and MedImmune/AstraZeneca. She has worked closely with the biotechnology industry to give her work a real-life application, investigating how production processes can impact the quality of biotherapeutics - a class of drug produced in living cells. Now in her final year, she reflects on the ups and downs of being a PhD student.

“Completing a PhD is a really unique way of studying,” says Natalie. “Rather than attending lectures, where you are presented with the information you need to understand; you are learning through working on your own project for three to four years, whilst contributing novel outcomes to the scientific community.”

By collaborating with industry, she has learned a variety of lab techniques using state of the art equipment including 10 L disposable bioreactors, which are large bags used to culture cells, equipped with sensors to closely monitor all aspects of cell growth. Working at a large scale came with its own challenges though.

Copyright: BBSRC
Equipment set up to isolate biotherapeutics from other components present in cell culture harvests. Copyright: BBSRC

“When learning how to harvest these large volumes, I managed to spray myself and the lab with the cultures,” laughed Natalie. “The cells I work with smell like cheesy feet so it was an unpleasant experience to say the least and cleaning it up was a nightmare!”

She’s had a love-hate relationship with her PhD, being passionate about her project, but often becoming “too invested” in it and prioritising lab work over her own needs. Throughout her studies she has learned the importance of finding a work-life balance to avoid burning out.

“You’re the soul driving force behind your project as a PhD student, and it rapidly becomes very personal to you. It’s important to take a step back and to give yourself a break, especially when things don’t work out as expected,” explains Natalie.

She confesses she’s cared for her cultures as if they were her own children, often pleading with them to grow or hoping for them to die to avoid further sampling.

Studying for a PhD also presents opportunities for development outside of the laboratory, and it’s those challenges she has enjoyed mastering the most. Throughout her project, she has presented her research at international conferences in Boston and Croatia, worked as an Outreach Ambassador and completed a Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) with BBSRC’s Communications and Engagement team.

“PhDs are full of fantastic opportunities to throw yourself in at the deep end, and to really challenge yourself whilst developing new skills,” says Natalie. “It’s important to grab these opportunities with both hands.”

Natalie’s project is funded by BBSRC: National Center for Biotechnology Information: Application of ER Stress Biomarkers to Predict Formulated Monoclonal Antibody Stability.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about UK Research and Innovation.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.


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Tags: feature pharmaceuticals industry industrial biotechnology skills and training people