Case Study: Katerina Johnson


During my undergraduate degree at Oxford in Biological Sciences, I maintained a breadth of interest across biology, ranging from genetics to evolution and behaviour.  However, I had always been particularly keen to research the causes and consequences of personality and social behaviour and so both my first year projects explored this from different angles.

I conducted my first project with Professor Ben Sheldon in Zoology, looking at the social networks of birds in relation to their ‘personality’.  I learnt how to handle large datasets and greatly improved my programming abilities.  Having been taught Python and C programming in the first term at the Doctoral Training Centre (DTC), I found these skills were very useful when it came to learning R programming to conduct social network and statistical analyses for this project.  I have since written up my findings as a research paper, which is now being published in Animal Behaviour

My second project was with Professor Robin Dunbar in Experimental Psychology, exploring the neurobiological basis of social behaviour in humans.  Since this was the first time I had conducted a human study, I learnt about the various stages involved, including ethics and participant recruitment.  Soon after I finished this project, I submitted my findings for publication in Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing Group), showing that pain tolerance predicts human social network size.  This led to worldwide media coverage including filming for Sky News, ITV News and Canadian TV, national and international radio interviews and being in all the major newspapers and online.  The paper was ranked in the top 400 for impact out of over 5 million research articles.  It was an amazing experience and also really gave me the chance to develop my science communication skills.

When it came to choosing my DPhil project, I knew I wanted to combine both data analysis and experimental work.  I had been reading a lot about the hot topic of the microbiome and was particularly interested in recent research suggesting a link with the brain and behaviour.  A key study showed that swapping the gut microbiome between two different mouse strains (one aggressive, the other shy) resulted in the recipient mouse taking on the behavioural traits of the individual from whom it received the microbial transplant.  Working in an upcoming field is exciting, especially since there is the potential to have a real impact, but it also has its own challenges.  I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of my research, which spans the fields of neuroscience, behaviour, molecular biology, microbiology, metagenomics and evolution.  The flexibility of the DTP programme allows you to pursue whatever you are interested in and in my case, I designed my project according to my interests and then identified suitable supervisors (Professor Phil Burnet and Professor Robin Dunbar). 

The taught courses at the DTC during the first year are valuable as they expose you to a range of techniques that may be useful for your own research.  Throughout our time as DPhil students, the DTC also runs useful sessions to develop additional skills such as designing conference posters and writing a scientific paper.  Another benefit of the course is that you build a breadth of contacts that may be helpful during your research, not only in terms of the other students at the DTC who have a variety of scientific backgrounds, but also the researchers you work alongside during your projects.  In addition, as part of our DTC demonstrating duties, we also have the opportunity to submit a dissertation to apply for Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, a well-recognised teaching qualification in academia.

The Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP also includes a 3-month internship as a compulsory part of the course that you can do flexibly during your DPhil.  Given my interest in science communication, I applied to do a placement with BBC Science where I was working on a new TV series all about the latest science on the human body.  My main roles included researching interesting science stories, contacting potential contributors and communicating with academics.  It was a great experience working at the BBC and seeing first-hand how academic research can be adapted to engage TV audiences.