July 1, 2020, by Lexi Earl
Making better proteins: an interview with Kamil Szepe
Kamil Szepe is a first-year PhD student, part of the Future Proteins Platform. Their project is titled: Improving the nutritional quality of future protein and they are supervised by Dr Simon Avery, Prof Paul Dyer, Dr Rebecca Ford, and Dr Cormac O’Shea. Kamil’s PhD investigates the effects that nutritional composition of growth media and induction of mistranslation via physiological and chemical signals has on amino acid composition of protein in fungi, including mycoprotein for food.
Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?
I was enrolled in an undergraduate MSc Integrated Genetics course at UoN. I would say that my decision for doing a PhD was motivated by the fact that I enjoyed both the work and the environment that I experienced during my MSc project.
Why did you choose this particular PhD project?
It was advertised during my MSc research project in the same lab. Originally, I thought about trying to find a job in industry (e.g. technician) and deciding whether to apply for a PhD a year later (probably for courses starting in autumn 2020). But since this position came up and I really enjoyed working in my lab group I considered applying. Another factor that further reinforced my decision to compete for the position in this project was its novelty and seemingly very open scope. I realised that I’d get an opportunity to learn many technical and experimental skills and have good flexibility in terms of what direction I want to take these skills in the future. Involvement with Quorn, as an industrial supervisor, was a cherry on top, firstly, because I had heard positive opinions about Quorn as industrial supervisors from a colleague doing a Quorn funded-PhD, and secondly, I think that more sustainable ways of protein production such as microbial protein will become much more prevalent, making it a prospective career choice.
How is your first year going? Any highlights or successes?
Based on the feedback from my year one viva and industrial supervisory meetings, it is going well. I was due to present some of my research at a Quorn conference, and I was designing and optimising certain selection screens that I was going to use in Quorn labs. Now, with the lockdown, these plans were cancelled or postponed but hopefully things will continue to go in the direction they did prior to the pandemic.
Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so?
Yes, in my opinion doing a PhD is basically a full-time job, whereas other degrees I have done were taught degrees. During a PhD, although you mainly work for your project you also have a responsibility to other people that you work with (and vice versa). In undergraduate courses the only person that is affected by for example, missing a deadline, is you – by getting a lower mark. During the PhD there are people in the group – supervisors, industrial partners – who all have their expectations and all put their time into my project, so I owe it to them to consistently do my best to achieve the project goals. The PhD also gives you good opportunities to socialise with other specialists and insert yourself in scientific community.
What have you learnt through your first PhD year?
I improved in every area that I was taught during my undergraduate course. This includes things like presentation skills, organising work, effectively conveying ideas to others and writing. I believe that these are quite easy to miss, and I don’t really realize that I have improved until I look back on my work from the past. In terms of technical skills, I did learn how to use equipment like HPLC, a lot of various methods ranging from DNA amplification and genetic modification, through designing selections screens, to running enzyme activity assays. I’d say that the most important skill I developed in the lab so far is the ability to troubleshoot problems and generally work on my own. This was a bit challenging in the beginning, having only had previous experience of lab work that was planned and organised by someone else with instructions and protocols laid out.
Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?
I am looking at ways of improving protein quality in yeast and F.venenatum. I am investigating the effect of growth media, amino acid synthesis and stress on the amino acid profile of the protein product with the hope that some or all of these can be used to deliberately change amino acid of the protein to, for example, improve protein texture, or increase the abundance of certain amino acids, making the product a better nutritional source. Things learned from this project could then hopefully be extrapolated to other organisms which could help in two main ways: 1) to provide nutritional protein in places where populations suffer from lack of adequate intake of specific amino acids; and 2) to make more protein sources of good nutritional quality which will hopefully decrease reliance on meat, helping make our food industry more sustainable.
How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?
I generally find PhD work less stressful than my undergraduate years because I used to work full-time during my studies to sustain myself financially. Now having only one project to work on and mostly consistent working days/hours I try to spend free time by socialising with friends e.g. having them over for dinner or just going out. I also like visiting cultural heritage sites or going to see art exhibits/performances.