Article PhD Blog

PhD life at the Earlham Institute: what our students say

It’s likely to be one of the biggest decisions you’ll have ever made, with the potential to shape your future career or even put you off research for life.

12 October 2022

It’s likely to be one of the biggest decisions you’ll have ever made, with the potential to shape your future career or even put you off research for life. For those who choose this path of hard work and self-discovery, embarking on a PhD can be both all-consuming and hugely rewarding. The key thing is to choose the right project and the right place to study.

We think the Earlham Institute should be high up on your list.

There’s more to a PhD than four years of late nights, early starts, and the fear it’ll all be for nothing if the experiments don’t work or – worse still – someone else beats you to publication. It gives you entry into a lifelong family of like-minded people, all of whom have shared the same hopes and fears, overcome challenges and set-backs, and seized opportunity whenever and wherever it arises.

Ask any current or former PhD student and they’ll tell you it’s not something to enter into lightly, but in this article we share some of the wide-ranging joys and benefits of the journey to becoming a doctor. 

A few of our students tell us what made them choose the Earlham Institute, why the project captured their attention, and what they’re enjoying about student life.

Multi-disciplinary research

Initially, I was really excited by the PhD project that was advertised as it combined my interests for both conservation and bioinformatics. The training opportunities at EI and across at UEA also seemed incredibly useful and would assist my development into an early career researcher. However, what solidified my decision was visiting the Earlham Institute itself. The institute has a really great atmosphere and I was instantly intrigued by the multi-disciplinary research that was going on within it. 

I’m looking forward to attending the first Earlham Student Symposium that I’ve helped organise with other members of the student body. This will be an opportunity for students from EI to share their work with colleagues and interact with other early career researchers from across the Research Park. It’ll be a great experience to showcase the scientific developments at Earlham!

Becky is a third-year ARIES DTP PhD Student in the Haerty Group, looking at the conservation genomics of the European Polecat

Collaboration and application

I applied for a PhD at the Earlham Institute mainly because I was very interested in the subject - plant resistance to pathogens - and in the proposed project as well. It's an industrial CASE project in partnership with the German breeding company KWS, the world market leader in the commercialisation of sugar beet seed. 

I really enjoy the multiplicity of the aspects in this project, which combines field work, lab work and bioinformatics. Moreover, I like the way the project is concrete, with a direct application of my work in the plant breeding industry; I aim to explore genomes of wild beet and identify genes conferring resistance to the beet rust fungus, with a final aim to improve the sugar beet crop.

I’m at an exciting stage of my PhD route, analysing genomic data recently generated from more than 500 wild beets, and exploring the diversity of their resistance genes towards pathogens. I’ll be presenting my work at the Plant and Animal Genome conference in January in San Diego!

I think the Earlham Institute is a great place to carry out a PhD, with a friendly student community; the interaction between research groups, allowing for the sharing of diverse expertise; and the access to the latest technologies in genome sequencing. 

Also, the Earlham Institute benefits from being part of the Norwich Research Park, with the interconnection with three other world-renowned research institutes: the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and the Quadram Institute.

Hélène is a third-year NRPDTP PhD Student in the Hall Group, working with Dr Mark McMullan on crop/pathogens interactions in the sea beet/sugar beet system, and its susceptibility/resistance to Uromyces beticola, the beet rust pathogen.

Hélène Yvanne with colleagues either side of her at a lab meeting with her group.

The institute has a really great atmosphere and I was instantly intrigued by the multi-disciplinary research that was going on within it. 

Becky Shaw, EI PhD Student

Developing new skills

As a researcher with a background in plant diseases and genetics, when looking for a PhD I wanted a project that built on the wet lab skills I gained during my masters whilst allowing me to develop new skills. 

The Air-Seq project immediately interested me because capturing DNA from the air is something that I'd never heard of before. 

Another thing that attracted me to apply was the 50:50 split of the project between wet lab work and bioinformatics, as I believed learning how to code would be a necessary skill for me to develop if I wished to remain in a genetics field - with improved sequencing technologies comes more data that require large computers to analyse. 

I’m now starting the second year of my PhD and trust I made the right choice when selecting my project as I’ve developed many personal and professional skills through voluntary opportunities and available training. 

For example, when I started my PhD I had almost zero coding knowledge but I now feel comfortable writing my own Python scripts, due to training run by the Earlham Institute alongside my own development and help from my lab group. I’ve also been able to see a wide range of potential commercial uses of the Air-Seq technology.

Mia is a second-year NRPDTP PhD Student in the Leggett Group, working on next-generation sequencing combined with bioinformatic tools to identify crop pathogens in the air of agricultural fields.

PhD Student Mia Berelson sitting at a lunch table with trees and landscaping behind her.

Expertise in plant science

I chose my project at EI because I wanted to conduct research on secondary metabolism in plants and my project on natural product biosynthesis in Asteraceae matched my research interests. 

I really enjoy the research atmosphere at Norwich Research Park, where a wide range of research facilities are accessible. Collaboration with experts in different fields is also very convenient here. 

Currently, I’m using an interdisciplinary approach (combining evolutionary study, molecular modelling and simulation and experimentation) to investigate the activity of an enzyme involved in natural product production in Asteraceae with collaborators within and outside EI.

Honghao is a second year NRPDTP PhD Student in the Nicola Patron Group studying the biosynthesis pathway of potential pharmaceutically valuable molecules, and the evolution of metabolite diversity in Asteraceae.

Colleagues from the Patron Group gathered around a table during their weekly lab meetings.

I think that the Earlham Institute is a great place to carry out a PhD, with a friendly student community; the interaction between research groups, and access to the latest technologies in genome sequencing.

Hélène Yvanne, EI PhD Student

World-leading science

I chose my project at EI because it offered me the opportunity to become a bioinformatician, at the same time as working in the laboratory. It meant I could also continue to live in Norwich. The city became my second home after I came here as an intern at The Sainsbury Laboratory in 2020.

The research park is a world-leading hub for science - especially for plant scientists. We work hard but I think a healthy work/life balance is possible to achieve while good quality science is generated. 

My project exploits the diversity that resides in the genome of the Musa species to fight the Fusarium Wilt of Banana, a disease that poses a major threat to commercial bananas worldwide. It’s a partnership with Tropic Biosciences, a start-up that is one of the leaders in the use of gene editing technology in crops for their improvement. I had the opportunity to work with them and gain industry experience at a company that is in their growth stage. 

I’ve learnt some of the differences to academic research and gained valuable skills in terms of tissue culture, quality checks, traceability, compliance with regulations of GMO and gene-edited plant materials, and experimental design and planning for experiments. I know I’ll apply most of those skills now that I’m back at EI to perform my assays with different banana varieties, and will keep in communication with the company during the rest of my PhD.

Carolina is a second-year NRPDTP PhD Student in the Jose De Vega Group.

Translating research

Addressing the challenge of food security was a major motivation for choosing my PhD project at the Earlham Institute. 

During my PhD, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a major agritech company and prestigious research institutes, through which I’ve developed a collection of AI-based bioinformatics tools. 

In my fourth year, I was successful in applying for BBSRC’s ICURe Programme to engage with industry and help translate my research into practical applications that could directly affect crop performance. After delivering a successful pitch to a panel of investors and funders, I’m now continuing to develop commercial relationships and plan to form a spinout company, TraitSeq, to accelerate crop development and address food security.


Josh is completing his PhD with Anthony Hall and is now Entrepreneurial Lead on developing the TraitSeq technology.

Interested in applying for a PhD?

Applications for the 2023 Norwich Research Park Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP), will open soon. Keep an eye on our Postgraduate Studies page for the latest vacancies.

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