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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience

Cambridge Postgraduate Pioneers - Sarah Harrison

Sarah Harrison, a final year PhD student at PDN, is featured in the University's Postgraduate Pioneer article series.

My research sets out to
My research tries pick apart what takes you from a single fertilized egg through to a body with head, tail and limbs and internal organs through embryonic development. And we mostly look at the mouse embryo to answer these questions and look at changes in cell shape, cell behavior and cell fate decisions along the way.
Rather than using whole mouse embryos to answer these questions about development, I derive stem cell populations from the embryos and maintain these in culture. What this means is that most of the time I’m standing in a small tissue culture room with my arms underneath a tissue culture hood to keep the cells happy and sterile. And then we grow the cells up and perform assays on how gene expression is changing when we change their culture conditions and try and plate them in scaffolds of 3D to generate embryo like structures. When I’m not in the culture room, I’m dissecting embryos, I’m down at the animals house looking after our transgenic mouse colonies and some of the time I’m sitting down doing data analysis. I’m in quite a collaborative group, so it’s rare that it’s just one person working on one question. Actually we’ve got lots of questions and we try to use all of our tools and expertise to answer them most effectively.
My best days 
My favourite period in the lab was when I was just starting to put together the work that went on to get us a first author publication. That was when I was combining embryonic stem cells with stem cells that I’d derived from extra embryonic tissues, so tissues that would go on to form the placenta. Combining these two cell types in a dish started to generate, through self-organisational processes, structures that looked like embryos. And when I first saw this I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to tell my supervisor. And even though it was still quite early days, it showed that our hypothesis about interactions between embryonic and extra-embryonic cells being really important in generating a body, was working, so that was great. 
I hope my work will lead to 
I hope my PhD research will help the mouse embryology field at least to see the importance of cell interactions, and that it’s not just about the cells that go on to make the body but also the extra-embryonic cells that nourish the embryo. So hopefully it will provide a new slant on early embryology. For me personally, I feel I’ve drilled right down into an incredibly precise area of life science. Now I’d like to broaden out a little bit and perhaps go into science publishing to be able to communicate these really interesting discoveries, many of which are happening right here in Cambridge. 
It had to be Cambridge because
In terms of developmental biology, there is nowhere like Cambridge. The building I’m in now is where scientists pioneered IVF, for instance. So that history is a major factor for people, but it’s not just about past breakthroughs, it’s about what’s going on now. I can go across the road to another building and chat to someone who is developing ways to encapsulate cells in tiny beads of gel, and really high tech, high through-put methods are being developed all around. And so it’s a great place to develop your research, not just in the techniques you know and love, but to expand and be more collaborative. On top of that, socially it’s great. We can go to lots of different institutes, and develop not just professional collaborations but also social collaborations, where we share ideas and results to get feedback. Having all these clever people around is a big benefit for developing.

Postgraduate Open Day
For more information about the University's Postgraduate Open Day on 3rd November 2017 and to book to attend, please click here.