Case Study: Max Jamilly


There is no life-science discipline more exciting than synthetic biology. Multidisciplinary and dynamic, wide-ranging and sometimes controversial, this young field is a collision between molecular and systems biology, engineering and mathematics. Max was attracted to the SynBio CDT because it offered an opportunity to work with world-leading research groups at the interfaces of all these subjects.

Max completed an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and a master’s in biotechnology at Cambridge University, then spent some time as an intern with a gene synthesis startup in the Cambridge area of Boston. He developed a keen interest in science entrepreneurship and understood that a multidisciplinary postgraduate programme was the ideal way to combine his passions for academic research and translational science. 

Max believes that synthetic biology has real potential to make a difference in society, yet it is not easy to bring together students from diverse academic backgrounds. The taught course in the first year of the CDT was a particular highlight for Max because it united biologists, mathematicians and engineers and taught them how to speak each other’s scientific language and combine their expertise to solve difficult technical problems. He gained a detailed understanding of how to model biological systems and is hoping to build this into his thesis work.

Throughout the taught course, Max really appreciated the emphasis on skills-based and career-focussed training such as presentations, entrepreneurship events, ethics discussions and design competitions. They were always well-organised and effective and he found these an invaluable way to build a strong set of scientific and transferable skills. From radio appearances to secondary-school classroom teaching, the SynBio CDT made life even more exciting than it would have been if Max had chosen a conventional PhD programme.

Max felt well-supported by the programme directors throughout the process of finding a lab and choosing a research project. ‘Project days’ early in the first year and a series of talks from potential supervisors helped Max in the early stages of this difficult decision. By being physically located in Oxford while looking for his lab, Max could carefully explore the options and talk to as many groups as possible.

After his project rotations, Max chose to remain for his DPhil in the lab of Professor Tudor Fulga at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Adjacent to the John Radcliffe Hospital, the WIMM has a major clinical focus and Max’s work – developing real-world applications of the breakthrough genome-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 – has all the translational potential that he sought in a PhD.

The SynBio CDT helped Max to feel a member of a thriving scientific community. Day to day, as part of a cohort of fourteen students, Max could share ideas and projects with like-minded scientists. Now, even after the taught course has finished and each student has found his or her own lab, they meet regularly for conferences and symposia, journal clubs and socials – a growing synbio family. The close connection with Warwick and Bristol is especially valuable because Max has been able to attend meetings and use equipment at both these institutions. Now he is planning a collaborative project with a lab in Bristol.