Case study: Oliver Coleman

Chemical synthesis and molecular biology related to the thymus, a key component of the immune system.

During his MChem degree at Warwick, Oliver spent a year on an industrial placement at Pfizer working on synthetic methodology research. The experience was challenging, unlike anything he had ever done before, but also very rewarding, and kindled his interest in synthesis for biology and medicine.

Beyond this general interest and a desire to work at the interface of chemistry and biology, Oliver was not sure exactly what he wanted to study at DPhil level. A major attraction of the SBM CDT course was that he could apply without having to specify a particular research topic. In his view the first four months at the SBM CDT represented the best taught course he has ever taken. He had not studied any biology since GCSE level and the modules gave him the biology grounding he needed in addition to a superb coverage of all aspects of synthesis. One of his first year rotations was in Professor Ben Davis’s group and led to Oliver appearing as an author on a paper published in Science – a significant achievement.

It was his other rotation with Professor Chris Schofield and Dr Akane Kawamura, however, which enabled Oliver to find a research area to pursue for 3 years. During this project he worked on a new technique for the design of cyclic peptides as chemical probes for different protein targets. Chemical probes can bind to domains in the target protein and affect its function, allowing the researcher to learn more about how the protein works and its associated biology. Previously Oliver had no idea that this area of work with cyclic peptides existed – but it ended up becoming the focus of his DPhil.

Oliver counts himself very lucky to have had excellent supervisors who took the time to help him find the right research topic, and also values the fact that students can try projects without commitment in their first year. His DPhil subject is strongly influenced by personal experience: Oliver has ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease which has resulted in serious illness. As a result, he is applying his interest in chemical synthesis and molecular biology to an immunological problem, as well as other targets in epigenetics.

Oliver is the only SBM CDT student working in this area, and he stresses that his research is not typical; one of the CDT’s great benefits is that it enables a wide range of choices, and it is quite possible to do a DPhil in pure synthetic chemistry. He regards having access to experts as another enormous benefit; Oliver collaborates with Professor Georg Hollander, an immunologist at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, and is also mentored by Dr Hitesh Sanganee, the Director of Emerging Innovations at AstraZeneca.

Finally, it is the relationship with other students at the SBM CDT that Oliver really appreciates. Because everyone studies together during the first few months, it builds up an excellent support network of colleagues who are equally enthusiastic about the subject area, and who can give each other help and advice throughout the DPhil. It is also, as Oliver points out, a lot of fun – and despite the long hours there is nothing he would rather be doing.