Doctoral studies – slightly risky but lots of fun

Secure employment certainly has its benefits. But Katriann Arja chose a slightly riskier route: a research degree.

Photo credit: Anton KurkkioShe shares her compact office in the organic chemistry corridor at Campus Valla with another doctoral student. But she’s often elsewhere: in the lab, giving a presentation – or listening to one. Or perhaps en route to a conference abroad.

As soon as Katriann started her bachelor’s in chemistry she knew that she wanted to work with research, inspired in part by the spectacular TV series CSI.

“My friend and I were good students and we got a few assignments from biologists. We discovered that molecular design was fun.”

From there it was a short step to a degree project in a research group that was investigating what can be done with a special type of molecule, luminescent conjugated oligothiophenes. These molecules have a long backbone onto which you can hang side chains, which can bind proteins and other compounds. When this happens they indicate it by changing colour, an attribute that Professor Peter Nilsson has made use of to discover Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain.

Now Katriann has completed two and a half years of her research degree, with Professor Nilsson as her supervisor. She leads her own project, and the same molecule is in the spotlight. But here it has been designed to detect and kill cancer tumours.

“I’m trying to create a customised drug that searches out the tumour and sneaks into the cancer cells like a Trojan horse. When the tumour is radiated with high-energy light, acid radicals are formed, and these kill the cancer cells.”

It’s time-consuming work for Katriann and her colleagues – organich chemists, biochemists and cell biologists. She expects that she will need the full 4.5 years of her doctoral studies to develop the optimal molecule. This is because parallel with the project she will also teach for 10% of her position and study ethics, education and philosophy of science.

More security today

Years ago doctoral students had little job security, with poor pay (if any) and reliance on their professor’s benevolence. Today they have a secure (though time-limited) position with a decent salary. (Katriann’s is SEK 27,000/month.)

Photo credit: Anton Kurkkio Linköping University has roughly 1,500 active doctoral students, of which some 650 are in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Each doctoral student belongs to a research group, with a professor or reader as principal supervisor. A large portion of the research funding goes to the doctoral students’ salaries, and additional funding can enable keen new students to get a foot in the door. For instance in early 2016 recruitment began for the new Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine at Linköping University, a major initiative at the intersection of medicine, science and engineering.
Increasingly, doctoral students are trained in graduate schools, a sort of umbrella organisation that Linköping University was one of the first universities to establish. An example is Forum Scientium, which hosts engineering, science and medical students whose theses require collaboration between disciplines.

“We want the graduate school to work as a bridge between different scientific disciplines. And that doctoral students will get to know and benefit from one another,” says Director of Studies Stefan Klintström.

He is often asked why a graduate engineer should choose a career in research, rather than the more lucrative industrial sector.

“The answer is the freedom to devote yourself completely to something you find extremely interesting. And to travel around the world, meeting fun, crazy people.”

So far, Katriann Arja has attended a few conferences in Sweden and one in Riga, Latvia. She is currently planning a trip to San Diego, for the American Chemical Society’s annual conference, with participants from all round the world.

“We’re encouraged to travel to international conferences at least once a year, giving a poster or a presentation. It’s an exciting challenge!”

Katriann’s advice, if you’re interested in research:

  • You must have a genuine interest in the topic
  • Be prepared to work hard
  • A good degree project is vital
  • Speak to teachers and supervisors
  • If you really have the desire and the ambition, you can succeed at anything.

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