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Postgraduate Study


Akhila, from Hyderabad, India, is a PhD candidate at Murray Edwards College. Based in the Department of Chemistry, her research focuses on the electrical interactions within living systems at a cellular level

The most exciting thing about Cambridge is the legacy of science and seeing how it carries on today. The network of talent is unique, and you’re surrounded by it. Cambridge is a hub of innovation, not only in fields like technology, health, and quantum physics, but it’s also a hub for some of the biggest pharma and software companies in the world, so it’s a great place to work on translational research.

I was looking at British universities for my PhD, and, for me, Cambridge was the best place for multidisciplinary biomedical engineering. It was where I liked the labs the most. I joined the Chemistry department, but because of the academic freedom Cambridge offers, and with my supervisor’s support, I’ve been able to collaborate very well with other teams and departments. My collaboration with the Biochemistry department looks at the single-cell electron-generating behaviour of micro-organisms that have the ability to harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide, their potential to be harvested as a power source. I’ve also collaborated with Electrical Engineering, working on developing cell-friendly materials which are also electrically active, paving the way for a more biologically relevant bio-electronic study platform for cells. I’ve been able to do a lot of things I might have otherwise not been able to.

My initial exposure to science came from my father, who studied molecular genetics. My mum has always been the artist and my creativity comes from her side. At school I enjoyed science projects and I began to think that doing research might suit me.

Cambridge is the third phase of my academic journey. I studied Biomedical Engineering for my undergraduate degree, at Osmania University and the University of California Riverside (UCR). It opened the door in terms of research, and thinking about how I could work on applied engineering. I did my Master’s in Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and while I was there I was able to volunteer with a public health NGO.

For my PhD, I had always wanted to be involved in topics related to health and human life. I wanted to learn how to conduct research and be trained in asking the right questions and continue learning. Cambridge is a huge learning curve, but it means you become a much more independent researcher. There is a lot of problem solving, and there is a lot of support available through the interdisciplinary teams.

When I was applying to Cambridge I found a lot of information online – on the department pages, on the labs’ pages, and on the pages of individual lab members. I actually applied to three different departments, because all of them were involved in the work I wanted to do. And I had a number of phone and video calls with professors in those departments who were extremely friendly and very helpful.

My funding came from Gates Cambridge Trust which oversees the Gates Cambridge scholarship programme for international postgraduate students. It is very flexible in terms of the scope of your study. I applied for it when I applied to the department, and the programme itself is actually one of my biggest sources of support and community here. I feel very thankful for that - the international aspect, the fact that there are students from diverse backgrounds and many countries. The fact there is such a big international community somehow makes me feel closer to home.

Cambridge is a completely different experience to anything I’ve had before, especially the college aspect of life. Because you’re part of a college community, you get to meet people from different departments and have really nice experiences, like picnics on the grass, conversations with people you might not have otherwise met. There is a lot of support.  Life during the pandemic is a challenge, but I think the University has been doing everything it can to keep us safe.

I’m really glad I came to Murray Edwards because I’m a huge supporter of women in education, particularly STEM. I’ve been involved with the college’s student committee, and have been its president. I’ve had an opportunity to do lots of other things in Cambridge, around science and policy, around student organisations, around the commercialisation of research work. It’s been really incredible.

My advice to anyone else applying is to reach out to people and see where you fit. The biggest benefit is really the way Cambridge is set up, because you’re not just restricted to your own department. You get the opportunity to meet people from across the university. Having a PhD from Cambridge is going to open that initial door to let you go and pursue whatever you want. That could be securing a position within a company – firms specifically come to Cambridge to hire Cambridge graduates – or it could be postdoc opportunities, funding opportunities, research collaborations, or exposure. It’s a legacy you can bank on.