Read about Jenny Smith's PhD experience at the University of Leeds

Jenny Smith

Tell us about the research you undertook at Leeds.

Many techniques have been developed to mimic human spinal cord injuries, however these can be expensive and time consuming. The aim of my project was to develop a simplified model using 3D culture technology to investigate cellular responses to controlled mechanical loading. The mechanical loading was designed to simulate the injury parameters associated with spinal cord injuries. Rheology was used to investigate the mechanical properties of collagen matrices, in order to select a matrix component with a similar stiffness to the human spinal cord. A method of simulating spinal cord injury was developed using an impaction rig. Cellular responses to injury were investigated; for example, the expression of GFAP was monitored using imaging techniques. GFAP is a protein expressed by astrocytes, which are a type of cell found in the spinal cord. Increased expression of GFAP is associated with scarring in the spinal cord following injury.

What have you been doing since your PhD? What are you doing in terms of your career?  

I started working as a trainee patent attorney at UDL as soon as my PhD finished. To become a fully qualified patent attorney typically takes between four to five years due to the number of exams. Some exams also require a certain level of experience before they can be taken. So far I have completed the foundation set of exams for UK patent law. I won't take any European exams until my third year in the role.

What experiences at Leeds do you think have particularly helped with your career or will help you in the future?

My firm was specifically looking for a medical engineer, so the content of my MSc and PhD ticked that box! My firm employed me as an engineer, not a biologist, so I actually work on all types of mechanical engineering, from medical devices through to parts for aeroplanes! The first time I studied engineering was as part of my integrated masters, so I am so pleased that I did - I had no idea that engineering would click in the way that it did! 

During my time in the iMBE I was able to gain lots of experience of a variety of medical devices, not just in relation to my research project. This meant I had a broad understanding of the field, which has definitely been very useful in my current role. I was able to take part in a number of public engagement activities which developed my verbal and communication skills; these skills are very important because I need to interact with clients on a regular basis.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about undertaking a research degree at Leeds?

The doctoral training programmes are a great way to keep some breadth to your knowledge before you specialise completely. I was able to try out aspects of several projects before finally choosing one - it's important to know you are really engaged with a project before you choose it, as it's a long and tough process. I really enjoyed being part of a cohort of PhD students, I've made friends for life and there was also a variety of knowledge and experience on hand to help when I was stuck!

What were the best aspects of your academic life at University and why? Any highlights?

I went on a week-long conference to Spain, which was an amazing experience! Of course, completing my thesis and passing my viva were incredible experiences too! 

What other activities outside of your studies were you involved in?

I was (and still am!) a member of the Leeds University Kickboxing Club which is a great way of keeping fit and relieving the stress of PhD life!

What advice would you give to students thinking about choosing the same area of study at Leeds or thinking about the same career?

Medical engineering is such a broad field that I think it would interest most people with either a biological or engineering background. Because it's so broad, there's also so much that you can do with it! 

My PhD was a great way of getting a masters qualification in a totally new field and gaining a whole new set of knowledge that has provided a diverse range of job opportunities. I think I'd decided just over half way through my PhD that research wasn't the career for me, but it didn't stop me feeling motivated or interested in my research. 

I'm so pleased that I can use my scientific knowledge and experiences everyday in my role. It's a great job if you're interested in researching how things work; I have to get to grips with a really wide range of technology in a short space of time, often without ever physically seeing the product. You've also got to have an interest in the law and a good memory for dates, deadlines and cases! It's a tough job, especially in the first few years whilst you've got to deal with your day job and revision, but it is rewarding and interesting.