My Dissertation Experience – Chantal D


Dr Leonie Unterholzner

Project title:

How does the DNA sensing adaptor STING cause the activation of the transcription factors IRF3 and NF-κB in the presence of viral DNA?” (Immunology)

Dissertation format

As a study abroad student, I started my dissertation research in my third year when I was back in Lancaster. I spent time doing my laboratory research throughout the week around lectures and seminars. Sometimes this required me to come in before class or between classes to prepare cell cultures for the following stage of my experiments. I finished in the lab before the Christmas holidays, then I submitted my dissertation in February and did my viva in March.

A typical day involved

Performing a variety of laboratory techniques such as cell culturing, plasmid preparation, SDS-Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis & Western Blot, Luciferase assay, confocal microscopy and statistical analysis. I worked under the supervision of a PhD student who explained new techniques and showed me how to use the specialised equipment in the lab.

Why I chose these topics

With only a handful of other students doing their research and dissertation at the same time as me, I had my dissertation subject assigned to me based on the availability of project supervisors. Although I didn’t get a topic area I requested, I discovered a new field of science that interested me and ended up thoroughly enjoying my research.

How much time was spent in the lab

I spent a total of 144 hours in the lab spread across 10 weeks.

What I investigated

My research investigated one of the many activation pathways of the innate immune system. More specifically, I was looking at how a sensing adaptor activated transcription factors in the immune response to viral DNA.

What I discovered

STING activated IRF3 but not NF-κB. I also discovered that cGAS and IFI16 induced NF-κB STING-independent activity

Further studies to be performed would try to identify which NF-κB pathway is activated following STING activation. This information could be useful for designing drugs that target DNA mediated inflammatory response.

Feedback from supervisor

I only spoke with my supervisor, Leonie, at the compulsory scheduled meetings, but on every occasion she was very supportive and provided extremely detailed feedback throughout my entire research project. She was also easily reachable by email and knowing that was very helpful. I had most of my contact (basically every day for 10 weeks) with my personally assigned PhD student and she was invaluable to my success with my project.

If I could do it again I would change

The thing that has been on my mind since finishing my project is that I should have made better use of the lab book provided to describe in exact detail every experiment performed. I could not have underestimated more how useful specific details would come in when I was writing up my dissertation several weeks down the line.

Any hints or advice?

  • Try to understand everything you’re doing in the lab as you go along – there’s nothing worse than trying to write about something you have no idea about.
  • When it came to writing my dissertation, I found that keeping separate documents for each of the different report sections i.e. Materials & Methods, Discussion, Conclusion, made the final formatting a lot easier because I just had to group everything into one new document and apply fonts and styles to a whole document instead of being tempted to edit as I wrote.