Is this PhD my dream Job?

I love cows, dairy cows to be exact, and that’s not meant to sound weird at all, I promise… I am doing my dream job, but the first Monday back after the Christmas break was still the hardest.

I am currently studying a PhD in dairy cow nutrition. I specifically look at faecal matter, poo, crap, excrement, sh*t (insert your own slang where appropriate). I am interested in what a dairy cow really thinks of her diet, and seeing how she can’t tell me, I have to dig a little deeper. Most people assume (rightly) that milk yield from dairy cows determines her opinion on her fodder: more food eaten means more milk. However, I want to know what her endocrine system thinks and what affect does that have on digestion. Faecal samples provide a medium where I can measure things like stress, intake and digestion. It’s complicated, ground breaking stuff! Or at least that’s what I am telling myself ;).

poo laura

Getting out of bed that first Monday morning back, was not easy. I had so much data to analyse, lab work to do, papers to write and goodness knows what else. Christmas break was an actual break, as I figured the last 9 months of my PhD are going to be break free.

I can’t moan, thinking back to my first year of my PhD (I’m a third year now), I had a non-working methodology – therefore no results and a general hated for life. Nothing in my former education could have prepared me for the rollercoaster of the first year of my PhD. This PhD stress is a far cry from the relatively stress free world of my bachelor’s degree in Animal science, my masters degrees, oh and my job (which I did for 2 years).

A PhD throws you from every high to every low and back again.

Image: Jorge Cham, The Stanford Daily

Image: Jorge Cham, The Stanford Daily

My job got me a piece in the newspaper... the perks of my unglamorous job ;)

My job got me a piece in the newspaper… the perks of my unglamorous job 😉

Do I regret anything? Not at all, with every low comes a high, and scientific highs are addictive. Getting methods working, seeing results, writing papers, and attending conferences all around the world. They are just some of the addictive traits of PhD life. All this whilst potentially making a scientific difference – there is no better way of to wind a week away. That’s what got me out of bed that first Monday after Christmas, remembering I am very lucky to be studying a PhD and to be making a difference in the dairy world. Not many can say that…

Of course, it still took a few coffees to get me going, and of course, they were made with only the best of British milk, from the best of the British bovine Ladies :).



I am now into February and not much has changed, bar my stress levels, they seem only to go up. I am making progress though, and I celebrate the little victories often… it keeps you sane, oh and gin… that helps too.


The University of Nottingham




Can we make chicken limbs grow?

Most people only view chickens as a source of meat. A means to an end to make a nice, tasty stir fry or a heart-warming soup. However, over the past few years, I have been using them to understand more about the development of the muscles. I am interested in what controls and signals muscle development, essentially: can I grow limbs from basic tissue? If I succeed, such a technique could potentially be used in medicine to help amputees and people who suffer with muscle related diseases. What’s more, it also has potential uses in the food industry.

So why chickens? 

Much scientific research is carried out in models such as mice and rats, however for my research, this is not the case. My work uses chicken embryos. The use of chicken embryos poses fewer problems concerning animal welfare and early chick embryo development is very similar to that of other animals. They are so similar that at early stages it can be very difficult to tell the difference between chicken, human or reptile. Can you tell the difference? I use chicken eggs that are freshly laid and incubated until a certain stage of their growth. Because the embryos are sheltered in an egg, it makes them easy to handle, although if you drop one there is one big omelette on the floor…

Development of Muscles

The official term for muscle development is Myogenesis and it occurs during embryo development. Most of the muscles that form the main body and limbs originate from the mesoderm, one of the several types of tissue that can undergo differentiation. The process of differentiation is when a cell becomes defined to a particular tissue type (e.g. a muscle cell) and it beholds a specific job or function. Think of a student at university: their bachelor’s degree is very broad but is in a defined field, they then go on to do a masters learning about just one specific area. They can then go further, become more ‘defined’, and do a PhD.

Credit: Poultry CRC

Credit: Poultry CRC

During early development the mesoderm forms defined segments called somites. It is from these somites that muscle originates. Normal body (trunk) skeletal muscle forms due to various signals, however, development of the limb muscles uses a completely different set of signals. During limb development, young muscle cells (known as a myoblasts) that express a muscle marker known as Pax 3 move into the limb bud. This movement (or migration) only occurs at specific sites, just like bird migratory events only happen at certain times of the year. Once these young myoblasts have migrated they form two distinct muscle masses: the dorsal and ventral masses. Once these masses have formed, the myoblasts begin to differentiate and express specific markers of differentiated muscle, including Myf5 and MyoD. The muscles of the limb will then continue to grow and develop into the normal defined limbs that everyone recognises.

Why muscle development?

Muscle development provides an excellent model for developmental science. Up until now, research has focused on the regulation and development of somites, and the development of limbs is currently not understood. Nobody understands how limbs grow in such specific locations, therefore I aim to use muscle development in chicken embryos to shed light and understand the processes that regulate differentiation during my PhD project.


Helen Anderton

The University of Nottingham


Kakapo: The Owl Parrot

Glancing through the Internet, as I do many times a day, I came across an interesting website: the ARKive. It is a non-profit initiative dedicated to providing public awareness and education about the conservation of many diverse species across the World. It was created by the charity Wildscreen, initially to record and document the wonders of all species found on Earth. They work alongside Google, WWF and IUCN to ensure there is a free resource accessible to everyone, detailing the features and fascinating personalities of the many species with live amongst. ARKive recently celebrated their 10th Anniversary, and to mark the event, they decided to hold a vote for the World’s most favourite species. And the number 1 choice was a species I knew very little about, so I thought I’d share my findings with you…

Continue reading