September 7, 2017, by Postgraduate Placements Nottingham

In the lab: putting a potential career to the test

This week Postgraduate Placements Nottingham catches up with Chris Till, a 3rd year PhD student on the Doctoral Training Partnership at the University of Nottingham, about his placement at Azotics Technologies Ltd.

My goal in doing a placement was to broaden my laboratory experience from an academic lab to an industrially minded one, so I couldn’t have been happier to be placed with Azotics Technologies Ltd. The company is a dynamic and ambitious spin-out of the University of Nottingham; Azotics specialises in sustainable nitrogen production.

My first day at Azotics set the tone for the rest of my time there with informative presentations by members of the team and an open-forum in which to discuss ongoing projects, problems and new research avenues. It really showcased the ethos of the company and was a great chance to get to know the whole team, and to have an opportunity to introduce myself and my work. Of course it was also a little overwhelming stepping into the shoes of the placement student who had preceded me and done some fantastic work on cloning. Inevitably I spent a lot of that first week digesting his work and working out where best to pick it up from. However by breaking the project down into more manageable goals I was able to make the task much more achievable, and found myself looking forward to getting cracking on the actual lab work.

My second and third weeks at Azotics focused on learning and optimising a pathogen detection technique, known as ELISA, to enhance its specificity and reliability whilst reducing experimental costs and time. I was really pleased to identify two or three promising avenues for this through buffer, primary & secondary antibody concentration and material optimisation experiments. I also picked up the work the previous placement student had begun on amplifying target genes out of cloned E.coli. It was a very busy period but I really enjoyed the challenge of the experimental work and generating some useful work that the company can implement.

By my second month on placement, I was deeply into the project and starting to meet some challenges in terms of the limitations of my lab equipment versus the difficulty of the experiments I was trying to do. Fortunately the R&D manager, who was already very pleased with my optimised ELISA protocol results, was quick obtain the equipment I needed to progress the project. I also enjoyed a break from my lab work to meet some collaborators from a company based in Dundee and hear about the exciting molecular work they are conducting on behalf of Azotic.

The following fortnight was a tough one as I ran into difficulties working with the E coli clones I had inherited at the start of the project. It was starting to feel like flogging a dead horse and as such I welcomed my supervisor’s decision for me to refocus on the ELISA optimisation element of the project. On the positive side I can also recognise that these challenges gave me a realistic picture of industrial lab work and an insight into evaluating and responding to project ‘dead ends and roadblocks’.

Having refocused the project I found the final few weeks flying by as I tried different experimental approaches to obtaining a clear lysate from a sample filled with lots of plant material. By now I was optimistic that by the end of this project we would have an optimised protocol for the ELISA that reduces the time for an estimate of colonisation significantly. Spending time learning molecular cloning and protein purification techniques from scratch, I also began to appreciate all the new lab skills I had been picking up during the placement.

I feel like my placement was very successful. I’ve gained many invaluable and transferable skills from the placement, as well as an understanding of research and development in an industrial setting. I would like to thank all members of staff at Azotic for their assistance and advice during my placement.

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