Irrene Arrata studied for a PhD in chemical biology at the University of Leeds

Irene Arrata

What is your research project about?

Chemical Biology. I look at applications and properties of small molecules mimicking proteins. The long term aim of my project is to replace a part of a protein by one of our molecules to target specific diseases.

What makes you passionate about what you are studying?

The idea that my work may somehow contribute to discovering new ways of curing diseases is my main motivation.

Why did you decide to do a research degree?

My undergraduate degree was purely about synthetic chemistry, and I wanted to expand my area of knowledge and skills to biology. I listened to my former supervisor’s advice and decided to carry on with a PhD.

How would you describe an average day in the life of a Leeds research student?

You spend a lot of your time in the lab. It can be quite variable depending on your project and the kind of equipment you need to use, but basically it is: do experiments, get results, write up (insert a coffee break when possible).

We have weekly group meetings where we present our work and discuss the recent literature.

What do you like best about the School of Chemistry?

Everybody is friendly and useful. You can ask help from pretty much anyone and you will get it.

There is also a great social life side, with the Postgraduate Chemistry Society that organises regular events and coffee mornings, so it is pretty easy to meet people and make friends.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your PhD?

The research itself was the hardest part, since it is all pretty new and nobody really knows what to expect, it is tricky to understand when things go wrong. Then it is just a game of patience and troubleshooting.

What has been the hardest thing about living abroad?

To be honest, this one was pretty easy since I already spoke English before I got here and I have lived in countries where I didn’t really speak the language before.

What have you particularly missed back home?

The food! Especially the bread, I can’t find a proper baguette in this country. Even French bakers seem to get it wrong. And cheese and wine are overpriced. Really, I live up to the stereotype of a French person!

What are the main skills which you have developed?

A lot of technical skills related to my project, but really, it is all about the attitude. I became more organised, managed multitasking better by running several experiments in parallel in different labs and work the timings right, but also I learnt to think better about what I am doing.

When things don’t work and you can’t figure out why, you need to start thinking in ways you wouldn’t normally, think about everything in every possible way until something makes sense. At some point, you look back on your first year’s problems and think “how could I struggle with that?” and that is when you realise you got better.

What have you enjoyed most about your PhD?

I was lucky to be in an incredible group where everybody is really nice and helpful. I made some amazing friends here, and I think that is the best part of my PhD.

What would you say to other international research students thinking of coming to the University of Leeds to study for a PhD?

I think it is a great choice of city, for the city itself is very student-oriented but also the University is pretty amazing.