The following interview was conducted by Yuhui Lin.
Martin Humphries is Professor of Biochemistry, Vice-President & Dean in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, UK. He is concurrently Vice-President of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Martin's research aims to elucidate the mechanisms responsible for metazoan life; specifically the role of cell adhesion in integrating signalling with tissue environment. Sticking, or adhesion, of cells, either to other cells or to the tissue proteins that surround them in the body, is a vital part of multicellular life. Adhesion is needed for holding the body together and for keeping millions of cells in the right place. During the course of many diseases, cells use adhesion to move abnormally throughout the body. Consequently, drugs that control adhesion might be useful for treating cardiovascular diseases, asthma, cancer, bacterial infections and ulcers. The work conducted in Martin Humphries’ lab uses new techniques to study the ways in which adhesion controls cell behaviour. If successful, the work will help us to understand more about how the molecules involved in adhesion work. It might also suggest ways to design drugs to control adhesion.
Lin: Tell us about the PhD programme. What makes UoM-A*STAR academic and research partnership different from other PhD programmes?
Humphries: There are three main differences that I believe make this a special programme, and therefore a great opportunity for the students. First, the programme is inter-institution, which means the students will experience two sets of supervisors, two sets of lab colleagues and two sets of research facilities over the four-year period. This will broaden the students’ experience of management styles, team approaches to science, and experimental technologies. Second, the programme is multi-national. This provides the students with an opportunity to live in two different countries and therefore experience two different cultures. Research, like many professions these days, is a global enterprise and therefore awareness of the benefits of diversity is an important attribute to gain. Third, the University of Manchester is, of course, a University, while A*STAR is a collection of Research Institutes. The mission of UoM is broader, encompassing undergraduate and Masters education, while A*STAR is primarily focused on research. Experiencing the different ways in which research is prioritised in the two institutions will therefore help the students decide on their next career move.
Lin: From the website, there are a range of PhD projects proposed by the advisors. What are the chances for a potential student to bring in a new research idea, and perhaps, to be accepted as a research theme for his/her doctoral thesis?
Humphries: The best projects happen this way. I am sure there will be a range of styles among the supervisors, but most group leaders that I know plan the initial phases of a project. This is largely because the student isn’t familiar enough with the background, but the student has increasing influence as the project progresses. Some students need more guidance than others, but it is very rewarding for a supervisor to have a bright student making suggestions about the direction of their project. It is also worth stressing that a PhD is a research training exercise, part of which involves learning to influence project direction. To some extent, it is therefore necessary for the student to have input. They are also likely to be tested on this in their viva!
Lin: For the PhD students, who will be part of their thesis committee?
Humphries: UoM doesn’t operate a thesis committee system. Instead, every student has an advisor who meets with the student and supervisor at regular intervals. The advisor often works in a related area, so they are well placed to provide advice on techniques or project direction, as well as pastoral support. The Graduate Training Programme in UoM has a carefully timetabled series of meetings throughout the four-year period, which ensures there is regular contact with the student. Formal progress at the end of year 1 is in the form of a continuation report that is assessed by an oral examination and conducted by independent examiners. Similarly, the viva at the end of the PhD is also independent, including the external examiner who comes from a different university.
Lin: What are the novel research projects that UoM-A*STAR would like to achieve and establish with A*STAR? Is there a specific research focus? If so, what are they?
Humphries: The most creative research is unconstrained and therefore as much as possible we should not control this from the top down. Furthermore, since the programme relies on effective collaboration between two group leaders in the different institutions, and this can’t be forced or controlled, we need to accept flexibility in project topic. Having said this, we recognise that resource is limiting and that it may therefore be necessary to focus in order to make the greatest progress and to compete globally. At UoM, we have identified five Beacon areas, which are our areas of greatest research strength and potential. These include four science Beacons (advanced materials, energy, industrial biotechnology and cancer), all of which are relevant to A*STAR priorities. There is no doubt that much of the work that is carried out by the students will overlap with these areas.
Lin: What are the funding opportunities for international students? Are the applicants eligible to apply to Overseas Research Scholar Awards (ORSA)?
Humphries: The students are eligible to apply for any scholarship, and their efforts to do so would be greatly appreciated. In addition, UoM operates a President’s Doctoral Scholarship scheme, which provides financial support to some of the most talented PhD students across the institution. International students on the programme would be able to apply for these scholarships.
Lin: And there’s always a question of running over four-years for PhD students. What are the possible funding in the 4.5 or 5th year?
Humphries: Unfortunately, this can’t happen because all PhD theses at UoM must be submitted within four years. In allocating studentships to universities, the UK Research Councils only recognise PhDs that are submitted within four years, and therefore we have made this a University policy. It is true that research never ends, so it is good to have a hard end date to facilitate planning.