Leigh Nicholson

STEMM Student Profile: Leigh Nicholson | PhD student in Medical Sciences | University of Sydney |  Sydney | NSW

Thesis topic: My PhD is investigating proteins that are involved in controlled and pathological adhesion loss of cells

Leigh - Taken_by_Jennifer_Yiu
Ms Leigh Nicholson

“People going into research have the idea that if an experiment doesn’t work, it’s always their fault. If I took western blots not working personally I would have no self-esteem left”

After finishing my Bachelor of Science, I went straight into my PhD in the Cell and Reproductive Laboratory at the University of Sydney. I love the practical side of research so much, especially experimenting with new and different techniques. In my second year I received the Macintosh Memorial Scholarship which allowed me to spend more time on my work. I was also awarded a grant of almost $12,000 for my proposal of using 3D cell culture devices to study the migration of cancer cells. Last year I was also lucky enough to get sent to San Francisco, along with three other women, by General Assembly for my interest in how science can benefit from the tech boom.

I try to get involved in science communication as much as I can and sometimes do writing for places like SBS Science, Lateral Magazine and The Conversation. I used to write regularly for the Sydney University newspaper Honi Soit. I have also just recently started work with Inspiring Australia, a National strategy for encouraging public involvement and awareness of Australian science.

More on my research: Most cells in the body are usually anchored down to something else to prevent movement. Looking at how the proteins that make up these adhesion complexes are controlled is helpful in understanding when it happens in an abnormal situation, such as cancer malignancy. The laboratory where I work in also looks at how controlled adhesion loss in uterine epithelial cells promotes blastocyst implantation and pregnancy, which helps understandings of successful IVF techniques.

I am also beginning to look at how 3D printing and molds can be used to make cell culture structures more closely resemble in vivo experiments.

Did you do maths and science in high school?

I did General Maths and Chemistry in high school. I definitely found I had a bit more difficulty starting off than others in my degree who had done more science or higher level maths. But I think it’s a nice reminder that high school or even undergrad subjects are not defining. 

If you could do it all over again, would you make the same choices?

I think the only difference would probably be to do more non-science electives in my undergraduate. The mentality of some science students and teachers to look down on Arts subjects is so damaging and unnecessary. Cross-discipline study is extremely valuable, especially in research. 

What is it you love about science?

I love being able to carve out a tiny area in my research field and know that I’m looking at something new and unknown. Even when experiments don’t work for weeks or months, it’s a nice thought to hold onto.  

How does society benefit from more women in STEMM and positions of leadership?

While I don’t think that the representation of women in STEMM is something that needs to be justified, if you’re making half the population, in addition to other minority groups, and feel unwelcome… then that area is always going to be lacking.

What advice have you been given that has best helped you grow as a scientist?

Probably when my supervisor told me that sometimes things just don’t work and it usually doesn’t have anything to do with you. People going into research have the idea that if an experiment doesn’t work, it’s always their fault. If I took western blots not working personally I would have no self-esteem left.

Follow Leigh on Twitter: @leigh_nich

[Image attribution: Jennifer Yiu]