My UEA Story: Pauline Walton
Name: Pauline Walton
Research area: Computational Chemistry
Bio: Pauline Walton is a mature third-year PhD computational chemistry student. After 15 years in commercial computation she stopped to bring up her two children in Norwich, and in 2012 she began a scientific Access course. She graduated from UEA in 2015 and was offered this EPSRC-funded opportunity to study biological membranes using computational methods.
I'm Pauline Walton and I'm a computational chemist.
Why is your research important?
Well I'm looking at biological membranes and I'm looking at drugs and I'm looking at them in great resolution. When you're developing drugs you need to do experiments to find out what's happening and you can't necessarily see all of what's going on in the membrane and by being able to simulate membranes and drugs I can get better resolution to predict what is probably going on.
What fascinates you about this area?
There's just so much to know, you never come to the end of knowing it's brilliant.
What do you love about being a research student?
Yeah I love the freedom that you have to work when you want to and how you want to and when you've come across something that's really interesting you can very often pursue that and when you do and it comes out - that's just so good.
What has been your favourite moment so far?
My favourite moment was when I had a stack of molecules and one was trying to join the stack and it suddenly converted into a butterfly and then joined the top, it was great.
7.30am - 9.30am
I am a mature graduate student with a young-adult family so my life is split between home and study. Before cycling to work I take the dog for a walk in Eaton Park near the University and I use this time to consider my plan for the day. Like other PhD students, I find my research intellectually challenging and this exercise is essential to keep me physically and mentally fit.
9.30am - 11.30am
My work is all computer-based modelling so I work in a desk-room rather than a lab. The morning is usually spent preparing simulations, making sense of results or considering ways to improve my system model. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Council sponsors me to simulate biomembrane-drug interactions which can be probed for dynamic behaviour. The theoretical models incorporate experimental data and can help to predict and explain complex atomic interactions.
11.30am - 12.30pm
During the morning coffee break I review work in progress and produce a realistic working plan for the afternoon. My work involves lots of planning and troubleshooting. For example, to quantify structural features in my model, I need to identify the contributing atoms and then find the best way to the extract geometric data. As a non-programmer this means I must be able to recognise the relevance of particular software tools and apply them correctly.
12.30pm - 2.30pm
Even after 18 months the software tools are still quite new to me and after many repetitions, when a procedure eventually produces good and reliable results, I need to write it out and file it as a master. This is likely to come in useful for later work and in future supervision of undergraduate projects.
2.30pm - 3.00pm
Each week I have a meeting with my PI where I am now starting to present results. This time is extremely helpful and ensures that my research will be productive and novel. I am also grateful for the good humour and experience of my colleagues in the desk-room, especially when challenges seem overwhelming.
3.00pm - 3.30pm
This coffee break is also a chance to sit down – when I started my PhD I asked for a “standing desk” which encourages me to move around regularly and to recognise when I need a break. This second break is usually short and aimed at setting a small target for the rest of the day.
3.30pm - 5.00pm
This target might be to develop a good image to demonstrate an interesting result and often identifies the need for more work. I like to end the afternoon on a little “win”, even if it is only noting that a procedure failed. Such small failures become tasks to be addressed which helps me keep positive.
Once home I initially focus on reconnecting with the family and then later I usually do some background reading. A successful day is when there has been progress of any kind.