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Asif Fazal

Why do you think interdisciplinary research is important?

Research in general acts as an important gateway to answering the pressing questions faced by society. Scientific research, in most cases, is interdisciplinary in nature, meaning it incorporates numerous facets of specific scientific knowledge. The use of interdisciplinary approaches enables a more rounded understanding of research questions and provides a more solid foundation and basis for future work.

Tell us about why you think interdisciplinary research facilitates new discoveries being made

Scientific research questions usually require a number of interlinking fields of knowledge to be utilised. An interdisciplinary research methodology allows the formulation of a more complete experimental plan, which tackles the question from a number of potentially different angles and facilitates novel findings. Interdisciplinary research provides a broader view of a specific question and, in the long run, saves time and effort whilst also providing more accurate and relevant analyses.

What interests you about interdisciplinary research?

Having completed the Natural Sciences degree course, I feel I have a good basis of knowledge to tackle problems of an interdisciplinary nature. The challenges and nuances present within research of this sort is extremely interesting and its widespread nature allows me to work on projects that may be distal to my area of knowledge, but would benefit from application of such a varied skillset.

Tell us a bit about your course (including the combination of subjects you’ve chosen)

I studied the Natural Sciences degree course and graduated in the summer of 2016. I chose to study chemistry and biochemistry, with the major focus on chemistry. These two subjects interlink especially well and the teaching provided many examples of chemistry within a biological context and vice versa. The course itself allows a wide variety of scientific disciplines to be chosen and studied, and therefore is capable of providing a range of knowledge and understanding, whilst also enabling me to maintain an interest in disparate fields.

What do you enjoy most about it?

The ability to incorporate a broad range of scientific disciplines into one degree course was extremely enjoyable and intellectually exciting. The opportunity to meet people studying a variety of courses was also enjoyable.

Was there anything in particular that made you study Natural Sciences at Leeds rather than another university?

The structure of the course at Leeds enables the initial study of a broad range of scientific disciplines before specialisation in the final years. This allows individual tailoring of degree courses, whilst study abroad and industrial placements also provide a great opportunity to further develop, both personally and scientifically. The facilities and people at the University of Leeds enable high calibre research to be carried out, which becomes visible during undergraduate lectures and teaching and allows the visualisation of scientific principles in research practice.

What do you think about the flexibility of your course?

The flexibility of the course is, I believe, one of the major benefits of studying Natural Sciences at Leeds. It allowed me to maintain and develop an interest in two interlinking fields of chemistry and biochemistry, without feeling I lacked knowledge in any specific area. The further flexibility incorporated by a potential year in industry or abroad provides another university experience, highly beneficial even after the completion of the degree.

How have you been able to be involved in boundary-pushing research?

The Natural Sciences degree course at Leeds is taught as a four year integrated masters, meaning a practical based research project forms a large part of the final year. Most of the year is spent in a selected research laboratory within the school and subject of choice. I spent my final year on the course in a research lab in the School of Chemistry, working on chemically labelling a protein of interest to the research group. The fluorescent label was used to observe the interaction between the protein and its interacting partner. Working on live research projects during the masters year gave me a great insight into the workings of a research group and the types of research that occur, whilst also being fun and exciting.

What do you think about discovery modules?

Discovery modules are a great way of extending your interests beyond the general scope of the chosen degree. The Natural Sciences degree is inherently broad in its subject content, but the opportunity to undertake discovery modules allows the further extension of interests. Language modules are popular as discovery modules, and while they are fun to learn, they’re also extremely useful after university and in finding jobs

What do you most enjoy about student life at Leeds, in general?

Leeds is a great student city. There’s always so much to do, whether that be music or comedy gigs; eating out; or nights out. There’s a lot of diverse and culturally related events taking place around Leeds, which are also easy to get involved with. The Leeds University Union has a wide range of clubs and societies which offer a huge variety of events, which heavily contributes to the vibrancy of the city.

What do you do outside of your studies (e.g. clubs, societies, interests)?

Outside of university studies, I play a number of sports including football, basketball, and occasionally American football. I find sports a great way of unwinding from work, whilst also exercising and keeping fit.

Tell us about your PhD research

I am currently a first year PhD student on the Wellcome Trust funded 4-year programme in the Astbury Centre at Leeds. The foundation year of the programme involves three 10-week rotations in labs within the Astbury Centre. My first rotation involved the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system to mutate an acyltransferase enzyme from bacteria, which was hypothesised to allow the creation of novel anti-cancer natural products. My second rotation was in the electron microscopy group and my research comprised the analysis of microscopy data for the purpose of understanding protein and lattice structure as well as potential inhibitor binding analysis.

How does your research bring together different disciplines?

My undergraduate, Natural Sciences, degree allowed me to specialise in both chemistry and biochemistry. I feel my PhD research so far has been a continuation of these two scientific disciplines. Initially, I was working on natural product synthesis which is the in vivo synthesis of chemical compounds by enzymes and proteins. These compounds can have a wide variety of uses, even in the scope of human relevance, including uses as antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. I used a number of biological methods to mutate enzymes, so that these proteins would create compounds with novel chemical structures and potentially new uses. My second project involved the use of a biological technique, electron microscopy, to study protein structure for the purpose of finding and designing inhibitory compounds, therefore also including the chemistry aspect of drug design.

Can you tell us about noteworthy discoveries you have made?

Working on two disparate projects in the ten week rotations has allowed me to work in and experience two different areas of scientific research. During my first rotation I successfully mutated the acyltransferase enzyme involved in the synthesis of an anti-cancer natural product drug. This enzymic domain is now being checked for its production of new natural products, which could potentially be better drugs and treat cancer more effectively. In my second project I was able to solve high resolution electron microscopy structures of plant and yeast forms of an enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of the amino acid histidine. This enzyme is regarded as an important herbicide target, so the protein structures are now being used to develop and design new inhibitory compounds which could be potent herbicides.

Why are Natural Scientists well placed to take on the scientific challenges of the future? 

The Natural Sciences course is inherently broad ranging and is a great introduction to interdisciplinary science. Most of the scientific research currently carried out incorporates multiple disciplines in varying capacities. Natural scientists already have a background in multiple scientific fields, so are well placed to apply different techniques and knowledge sets to each research question. Natural scientists can think of and consider the broader implications of approaching a complicated research question in a certain way, primarily due to an extensive background in interdisciplinary science.

What is the Astbury Centre and how does it facilitate interdisciplinary research?

The Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Leeds. The centre incorporates researchers from physics, biological sciences, and chemistry, and develops collaborations between the sciences to tackle important and pressing research questions. The centre houses a large amount of technical equipment and expertise, allowing its members to study life and living cells in atomic detail.

How do you utilise the Astbury Centre in your work? E.g. cryo-electron microscopes

The Astbury Centre at Leeds is home to the Astbury Biostructure Laboratory, which contains brand new, cutting-edge equipment, including cryo-electron microscopes and NMR machines, for the study of structures in atomic detail. During the first year of my PhD, I worked on a project to solve the structure of plant and yeast forms of an enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of the amino acid histidine. The use of the new cryo-electron microscopes within the Astbury Centre led to the determination of high resolution structures of both isoforms of the enzyme, which allowed comparison of the atomic details of the two, as well as the potential development of novel inhibitors against the enzymes as new herbicide compounds.

Why is interdisciplinary research strong at Leeds?

The University of Leeds, and the Astbury Centre in particular, are heavily invested in interdisciplinary research. The combination of multiple fields of science to tackle the pressing issues and questions in present society has been identified as the major way of obtaining comprehensive insight and answers. This commitment to interdisciplinary research by the university has led to a huge investment into structural techniques in the Astbury Centre, as well as a number of noteworthy scientific discoveries.