Doctor Doctor


PhD student Rob Maughan talks to Conor O’Nolan about life as a postgraduate and his fascinating research in the world of infection biology

What is the official title of your PhD?
Wellcome Trust PhD in Computational Infection Biology.

Explain the official title in English please.
My PhD programme focuses on studying various aspects of human and animal infection with the help of modern computer-based approaches. This mixed training of computer methods and scientific methods is becoming increasingly important in biology because a number of the methods biologists use today result in a large amount of information, and the easiest way to make sense of this information is using computer-based methods. Wellcome Trust is the funding agency that supports my PhD programme.

What undergraduate degree course did you do?
I completed my undergrad last year at UCD. It was a four-year BSc in Biomedical Health and Life Sciences.

What made you choose to do a PhD?
I chose to do a PhD because I’m genuinely interested in the field of infection biology and wanted to pursue a career in this area or something similar. I felt the Computational Infection Biology PhD programme offered me the opportunity to follow this interest, as well as to gain skills in data analysis and computation. Hopefully skills such as these will make me more employable beyond the world of academia!

What is your PhD project about?
As part of the first year of my PhD we are required to do two small projects before picking a larger project to complete in the remaining three years. My first project, which I am just finishing up now, was a study that aimed to determine the side effects of HIV drug therapies.


What is the best thing about research?
One of the best things about research has to be that rare feeling of satisfaction and excitement when you finally get something to work that just might show something that nobody has ever seen before. I’m still looking forward to that moment! Another great thing about research is having your own project to work on; this means that you can work at your own times and pace, but of course you have deadlines and targets to meet. My last ‘best thing’ about research is that it rarely gets boring because you are usually doing something different every week.


What is the worst thing about research?
How easy it is to make a mistake that can be costly in terms of both time and finances. For example, during my fourth year project I made a mistake at the end of an experiment that takes three weeks to do, twice! Unfortunately these moments are far more common than the ‘best thing’ moments above. Another downside is late nights in the lab due to the amount of time that some experiments can take to complete.

How could your work make a difference to the world?
I think it’s naïve to believe that your research could make an easily tangible difference in the world, but I am hopeful that my work could form a small part of a larger discovery process. Publishing my work in scientific journals could not only influence others working in my field but it could help make important decisions with regards to healthcare policies etc.

How do you hope your PhD will affect your career prospects?
Beyond the actual doctorate itself, the skills that I hope to attain in completing this PhD will qualify me to work in a number of areas, even beyond academia. However, I would like to pursue a career in academic science because of the greater freedom to choose what area in which to work compared to other jobs. A PhD degree should enable me to apply for post-doctoral research jobs overseas; I would love to work in the United States or Australia for a while.