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Colleen Loynachan

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Colleen Loynachan has been a welcomed addition to the i-sense team since she joined us during the second year of her PhD with Prof Molly Stevens at Imperial College London. Today, Colleen shares with us her experience, tips, influences and achievements from when her interest in science was sparked, to the end of her PhD.

What got you interested in doing a PhD?

I began engaging in scientific research in high school, where I had the opportunity to intern in a lab at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles where we were developing therapies for a disease that affects premature infants under the mentorship of a physician-scientist. It was profoundly inspiring to work alongside clinicians and researchers and contribute to work that would have a direct positive impact in the clinic. Throughout my undergraduate degree I worked in labs that had diverse research aims – spanning the synthesis of nanomaterials for non-invasive brain stimulation to the development of solid oxide fuel cells. The vast landscape of research and the possibilities for developing my own independent and collaborative projects, along with motivation from mentors, was really what compelled me to pursue a PhD.

Tell us a little about your study…

Working in a large and multidisciplinary group has enabled me to dabble in a variety of research projects throughout the four years of my PhD. When I first joined the Stevens group I worked on developing a drug delivery platform for cancer treatment. In the second year of my PhD I joined the i-sense consortium and through this was inspired to develop diagnostic tools for the early detection of disease. Early on in this project I became interested in a new class of inorganic nanoscale materials that mimicked the property of biological enzymes, called catalytic nanoparticles. We envisioned that we could use these materials to amplify signal and improve the sensitivity of point-of-care diagnostic tests. The majority of the second and third years of my PhD were focused on the synthesis of these enzyme-mimicking nanomaterials and the development of a sensitive paper-based diagnostic test for HIV. Toward the end of the third year of my PhD I was inspired by an invited lecture given by Prof. Sangeeta Bhatia from MIT, where she discussed her group’s work on the development of in vivo sensing systems for early detection of diseases ranging from malaria to cancer. With the support of the i-Sense mobility fellowship I was able to visit Bhatia’s group at MIT and develop a collaborative project to bridge our nanomaterials with their in vivo sensing platform. Through this exciting collaboration, we have rapidly developed a new type of sensing system that provides a colorimetric change in urine as a disease indicator.

How has working in one of EPSRC’s Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations influenced or helped your research?

I am inspired primarily by projects that have direct clinical outcomes and joining the i-sense team really grounded the aims of my research in the development of globally accessible diagnostics. It has been incredibly rewarding to collaborate with i-sense scientists with diverse backgrounds ranging from nanomaterials to virology. i-sense meetings and lectures have been eye-opening in terms of learning about translation of diagnostic tests, global perspectives, and understanding clinical and end-user needs.

If you could give an aspiring PhD student some key tips, what would they be?

  1. While it is tempting to solidify a research project early on, I would say that it is important to keep an open mind for as long as possible before settling on a particular research direction. The first year of the PhD is a good time to learn basic lab skills relevant for your projects and explore a variety of research directions before going more deeply in one direction.
  2. Make sure you have a network of post docs or people with more experience than you that you can chat with on a regular basis to discuss progress and directions. It is super helpful to develop a support network in and out of the lab.
  3. While many experiments may not be fruitful at the beginning, it’s important to maintain a positive and optimistic attitude and approach failure with an open mind. Problem solving, and critical thinking are key translatable skills learned during a PhD.
  4. Take interest in what people around you - in your own group, department and university through group meetings and conferences - are doing. While they may be working in a variety of areas that differ from your own, exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives can help in cultivating creative directions for your own research.

Was there particular support or tips you received during your PhD that you found helpful or inspiring?

Throughout my PhD I have been fortunate to have support and mentorship from talented PhD students, post docs, and my advisor. My post doc mentors have been particularly helpful in providing support related to the specific details of projects, training me on techniques, and helping to design meaningful experiments. My advisor has provided immense support in training me to be a leader in the field by encouraging me to present at international conferences and allowing me to participate in international collaborations where I’ve been able to broaden my skills and expand my network.

Outside of your day to day work, have you been involved things that have influenced your research?

Public engagement and outreach projects, mostly facilitated through i-sense, have been helpful in understanding how to communicate my work to a broader audience and understand the concerns and interests of the public related to my field.

What was your greatest achievement?

I think the thing I am most proud of is in starting the collaboration with MIT in the final year of my PhD. This collaboration proved to be extremely productive and rewarding in terms of learning new skills and I also made new friends and connections!

You’re coming up to your last few months; what would you like the next steps to be?

I’m working on wrapping up some of the remaining projects in the group and am looking toward a career in academia, ideally starting my own research group one day. In terms of next steps, I’m interested in changing directions and diving into a new field, so that in the future I can combine skills I developed during my PhD with this new area, potentially in immunology, neuroscience or gene editing. I hope that one day I can combine my background in materials development with one of these exciting directions to develop new technologies that have positive therapeutic potential.