Catherine Webley - PhD Chemistry

I have much enthusiasm for my topic thanks to the many talented chemists who have inspired and encouraged me throughout my career journey.

Catherine Webley

20 October 2019

What is your educational background?

I completed an MChem in Chemistry with Drug Discovery at the University of Strathclyde. This included a year’s placement in an academic research lab in the Solar Centre at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology under the supervision of Prof. Iain McCulloch. For my master’s project, I worked in the group of Dr. K. H. Aaron Lau in the Lau Laboratory for Bioinspired Materials. My education at University of Strathclyde was very varied and I also did a Vertically Integrated Project with Dr. Paul Herron at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences which enabled me to gain research experience even early on in my undergraduate.

What are your motivations for pursuing a graduate-level qualification?

I had always been motivated to undertake a PhD programme and the research experience I gained during my undergraduate degree really confirmed this for me thus, my primary motivation is a love of research. However, my previous research projects had all been only 1 year in duration and I was very enthusiastic about the opportunity to pursue a project for a longer period and be able to spend a few year’s really delving into the subject matter. I am excited to finally have more time to enjoy my research. Related to this; a PhD project provides time to learn a more varied skill set (including use of technical instrumentation that takes time to grasp) and I am very motivated to learn new scientific skills. I look forward to doing this during my time at UCL.

Why did you apply to UCL for graduate study?

There are many reasons why I applied to study at UCL. UCL is well-known for high quality research and I aspired to join a leading institution for further study. UCL has a fantastic location because there are many chemical conferences and Royal Society of Chemistry events that take place here. This makes it easy to get involved in science that is happening elsewhere and to make connections and meet new contacts during my research degree. For those who want to go into industry, UCL is excellent because of the wealth of industry labs nearby (such as GSK in Stevenage). I feel that proximity to industry labs is critical for those conducting academic research since industry provides valuable direction to ensure that our research is focused on solving relevant problems that will benefit the entire scientific community.  Related to my field of study; UCL is part of the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology making it a great place for inter-institutional knowledge exchange. Compared with other top tier universities, I was attracted to the diversity within the scientific community at UCL. As scientists, I believe we are responsible for ensuring that voices from all backgrounds are heard. This enables us to tackle challenges from many different perspectives. UCL has a wonderful community in which everyone is welcome.

Can you briefly describe your research?

I am seeking to provide mechanistic insight into the antimicrobial properties of the lantibiotic Nisin via biophysical characterisation of nanopores formed between itself and lipid II. Lipid II is an important precursor in the bacterial cell wall. Nisin has a dual mode of action whereby it sequesters Lipid II (reducing the amount of available Lipid II present for bacterial cell wall synthesis) and is additionally able to insert into bacterial cell walls creating the nanopores that I am studying. Both these interactions result in bacterial cell death. In the case of the nanopores, this is because it disrupts the ion gradient which has a role in regulating a healthy bacterial cell. This project is exciting because understanding these antimicrobial properties would facilitate future discovery of a new generation of antibiotics that were able to mimic these properties.

What do you find interesting about your field of study and what inspires you?

Since undertaking a PhD is a long journey, I chose my field (chemical biology) very carefully. I wanted to study an area where even on a bad day, I could reflect on my research goals and appreciate how the process is worthwhile. My passion for chemical biology was ignited by lecturers during my undergraduate who taught me that ‘nature is the best chemist’. I became fascinated by the complex interplay between small molecules and much larger systems (such as proteins) which are responsible for maintaining normal biological processes from small, simple organisms to complex species like ourselves. I am really interested in understanding how this works. I think as chemists, we have a lot to learn from nature and I am proud to be part of this learning process. Furthermore, the chemistry department at UCL is a great source of inspiration since the head of department (and the head of my section) are women. From speaking with other female PhD students, we agreed that it is amazing for us to see other women in higher roles. It helps us understand that this is something we can achieve.  

Has there been an element of your degree programme that has impressed you or been particularly valuable?

I’m impressed by how friendly and fun the chemistry department at UCL is. One of the first things I did when I started my PhD was to attend a welcome talk held for all new undergraduate students, postgraduate students and staff members. We had the opportunity to see UCL academic staff present some of their research and this was a great source of inspiration. It was amazing to engage with other chemists across all career levels. There is a lot of encouragement to meet with and collaborate across the department and this builds a sense of community. As a graduate researcher, UCL is a very homely environment. Furthermore, the training provided by other researchers at UCL is amazing, it is great to be surrounded by highly skilled scientists and the opportunities for peer to peer learning really assist with developing new skills.

What are your career plans once you’ve completed your current programme of study at UCL?

My favourite thing about academic research is the knowledge transfer. Some of the most useful skills I have in the chemistry lab come from postdoctoral researchers who have trained me and advice and assistance I have received from other students. I have much enthusiasm for my topic thanks to the many talented chemists who have inspired and encouraged me throughout my career journey. Hence, I would love to continue down an academic route and be able to give back to the scientific community (and potentially inspire those who come after me, as has been done by those who came before me). I started my PhD with the intention of progressing towards becoming a lecturer in chemical biology. Further training is required to reach this point and I believe it is equally important to remain open-minded towards other opportunities as well. Chemistry is a vibrant and diverse field and I don’t know yet what will happen in the coming years.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your time at UCL Chemistry?

UCL is a hugely progressive, enjoyable and open-minded institution where I am having a lot of fun being at the forefront of the exciting scientific progress that is happening here.