Taking Positive Steps Towards PhD Success

Taking Positive Steps Towards PhD Success
1 year ago

Taking Positive Steps Towards PhD Success

The path to PhD success is rarely a smooth one, with most students facing unexpected setbacks at some point along their journey. For Samuel Dada, a PhD student in Biological Sciences at the University of Cambridge, the PhD journey itself was an unexpected one. After being dropped from A-Level Chemistry class and being told that “science was not for him”, the chances of a successful career in STEM seemed slim. However, his resilience shone through, and with hard work and perseverance he finally secured a position at one of the UK’s most prestigious institutes.

In this insightful guest blog, Samuel gives an honest and detailed account of his PhD experience to date, sharing the highs, the lows, and the importance of maintaining a positive mindset for academic success.


Undertaking a PhD at one of the best universities in the world is not something I could ever have dreamed of, nor imagined I might be destined for, yet somehow life’s eventful and unexpected journey has brought me here. After many years, I finally feel as though I belong, as though I’m owning it and am rightfully taking up space here at the University of Cambridge. It’s something I could never have predicted from such uncertain beginnings because, as you will see, my academic science career didn’t get off to the strongest start…

  • 2012 - Achieved average grades at GCSE
  • 2013 - Dropped from Chemistry A-Level class and told that “science was not for me”
  • 2014 - Failed my A-Levels, but thanks to clearing was given a chance at Kingston University London
  • 2017 - Graduated with a First Class degree in Biochemistry (Hons) with a Gold Kingston University Award. Went to University College London (UCL) juggling two jobs and a Master of Research degree
  • 2018 - Graduated from UCL with a Distinction in Biosciences (Biochemistry). Awarded Best MRes Research project Prize
  • 2018 - Unable to secure a PhD scholarship of choice, instead secured a job at Imperial College London and New York University at the same time as a Lab assistant and demonstrator respectively
  • 2019 - Awarded a scholarship with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) doctoral training programme (DTP) at the University of Cambridge for a PhD in Biological Sciences


The beginning of my PhD journey

Before embarking on my PhD at Cambridge, my dad told me that I should “try to enjoy the journey, even if it’s hard”, so I set myself two major goals. The first was to try to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn new skills to broaden my academic horizons. The second was to ensure I ended up in a good lab with a supervisor who was supportive and who understood the importance of a healthy work-life balance.

My first goal was achievable thanks to my funding body, the BBSRC. During the first year of the programme it was compulsory to carry out two PhD rotations as well as courses in R and Python. For my first rotation, I decided to face my fears and go back to Chemistry. I picked an organic synthesis group which was very daunting, and my project required me to produce an unnatural amino acid for incorporation into a peptide to inhibit the protein-protein interaction of a protein implicated in the cell death signaling pathway. I learned so much and carried out many characterisations using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), mass spectroscopy, thin layer chromatography and infrared spectroscopy. Despite doing well, I couldn't imagine doing synthesis for the rest of my PhD, so I needed a more interdisciplinary lab that would home in on both biological and chemistry approaches and where I could learn new things but still utilize the experimental skills and knowledge I had obtained over the years.

So for my second rotation, I picked a lab that worked in an area I was more familiar with. This lab delved into the influence of genes and the gut-brain axes. However, I was still on the lookout for a lab group that gave me that buzz, that got me excited. There was a big group within the department of chemistry that I wanted the chance to collaborate with. My previous groups were small and I had never really got along with micro-management styles. I was already putting so much pressure on myself, and combining this with the expectations of others would push me beyond the limit of what was healthy and acceptable. In previous groups, I’d found myself working in the lab at ungodly hours, not taking regular breaks, and working on weekends as well as public holidays. That is not healthy or sustainable in the long-term, and is not something I wanted to repeat.


Finding the right fit for me

The bigger group I approached was an interdisciplinary group that worked at understanding the molecular origins of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. The leader of the group was a theoretical physicist and I was keen to get involved, so I sent him an email and he scheduled an in-person meeting within one week. I thought this was remarkably quick for someone of his academic stature. My first meeting with him was incredible, he listened, he was interested in ME, he wanted to know what I wanted to do, what I hoped to gain from an experience in his lab and how he could help ME achieve my goals. It was truly beyond my wildest expectations. Typically, when you meet with professors of that stature they will often just tell you all about themselves and are less interested in where your skill set lies. But that meeting was truly refreshing and solidified my decision. The group was amazing, the people were lovely, supportive and welcoming, but more importantly, I now had a clear direction for my project and what was expected from me. The foundation for my PhD was set and I was feeling happy and positive about my change of direction. However, the pandemic was soon to become the dark cloud that would throw a shadow over my perfect PhD plans…


Moving forward against the odds

I’d had a little taste of what life could be like in the new lab group, but just like that, it all came to a halt before it had really started. It was frustrating, but the world was struggling to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic, and as no experimental work could be carried out, I was required instead to write a report of my experimental findings during my rotation. I also had to write a research proposal to highlight my PhD project plans. During all the chaos of the pandemic, I was informed by my supervisor that he would like to publish some of the experimental work that I’d carried out with his guidance. I was extremely excited, and it gave me a much-needed confidence boost. I had only been in the lab for 6 weeks but suddenly I had my name on a publication and I just couldn't believe it! After submission I was permitted to return to the lab as we had revisions to carry out on the paper. I played a huge part in the revisions as they required my C elegans expertise. It was hugely rewarding and I felt as though I truly deserved to be on that publication.


New skills and responsibilities

As the new academic year began, we were all finally back in the lab and I found myself supervising two masters students. One was a visiting student from Germany and the other was an integrated master's student studying Natural Sciences. To be honest I didn’t feel fully settled in the lab yet, in fact I felt I had no idea what I was doing! But my PI thought I had what it took to supervise and guide them. He believed in me and that felt good, however, the pressure of this new responsibility was heavy. My approach to supervising them was to be straight up and honest. I told them that we would have fun doing experiments and that they shouldn’t fear making mistakes. If they were unsure of anything experimentally, they could come to me any time and we would figure things out together. I wanted the dynamic to be very collaborative and equal despite my vast experimental and research experience. That approach worked well and I ended up learning so much from them. It was a positive and rewarding experience and I felt comfortable talking through my thoughts and processes with them.


Searching for joy during difficult times

Although the PhD was going well, one thing was missing… my social life. As a result of the pandemic, the PhD had become my whole world. My daily routine was ‘run, lab, home’ or ‘lab, run, home’ - nothing more, nothing less. In the early days I had started a YouTube channel, and despite its rapid growth and positive engagement, I had lost all motivation to continue with it. The joy was gone and the pandemic had taken a massive toll on my mental health, though I didn't realize it at the time. My parents contracted Covid during the festive season, so I was unable to go home for the Christmas holidays which was something I had been looking forward to. Covid affected my dad's health in a big way as it flared up some of his other health conditions, and I felt helpless being so far away. Then, one of my master's students decided to finish earlier than expected which was sad but I understood their decision. Times were difficult and motivation was at an all-time low for all of us. Maintaining positivity during these challenging times felt almost impossible, and on top of all this I still had to write my first-year report, and also introduce a replacement master's student to the lab. However, the new student was incredible and a real breath of fresh air for us all, making life feel so much better. We became friends and my social life began to improve. We started playing an outdoor sport known as Spikeball, a sport that took the whole of Cambridge by storm! We were playing after work almost every day with a group of friends which just seemed to grow bigger and bigger!


Finding the positives from a lengthy publication process

My first-year report was a tough one. I felt good about it, but after the viva, I never felt more like an imposter. However, I passed my first year and found myself using my report to write a manuscript for my first paper as a first author. Publishing has never been a major goal of mine because although the experience is important, I do find the whole process long and rather frustrating. We submitted it to Nature Chemistry, and it took six months to get the reviewers' comments. It had been so long that I had almost forgotten about it and I had moved on to other research, but had to revisit it to address some of the reviewers' comments, only to have it rejected. We submitted again to Science Advances and received a rejection email within 2 months. This was very confusing because this time the reviewers were filled with praise for the research, yet we were still rejected. Despite another rejection from Nature Communications, we stayed positive and were finally accepted by PNAS after almost two years. As humans it is very easy to focus on the negatives when things aren’t going well, but academia is filled with rejections so a positive outlook is essential for eventual success. More revisions were required, and the editorial process was lengthy, but we made it, and we did it!


Leading the way towards a bright future

From the second year onwards things have been super smooth. I’ve managed to maintain a healthy work-life balance which has had a positive impact on my PhD experience. I rekindled my love for creating YouTube videos and currently have over 3,000 subscribers. This has opened so many amazing opportunities that I am so grateful and thankful for. I’ve been invited to so many YouTube events including the YouTube Black Gala in 2022 where I had the chance to meet many of the educational creators that have inspired me over the years like Dr Amina Yonis, Courtney Daniella, Vee Kativhu, Nissy Tee and Ehis Ilozbhie. I have worked with the Salters’ Institute to create video content for school Chemistry Clubs, and having a massive film crew around me was a surreal experience! I was also invited to the prestigious Eton College to give a talk about my journey through academia - watch the video here!


Representation matters

One of my long-term goals has always been to ensure further education is accessible to those from underrepresented groups or backgrounds like me. I want those students to not only envision themselves taking up space in institutes like Oxbridge, but also to ensure that they are equipped with the skills and the knowledge to thrive. I have been doing this in my own little way by co-founding a Cambridge Black Postgraduate Society (CBPS), being elected a BME officer within my college, working as a mentor, and helping to promote the Experience Postgrad Life Sciences Widening Participation programme which gives research opportunities to students from underrepresented backgrounds. I was also part of the Get into Cambridge campaign and briefly worked with Target-Oxbridge as an ambassador to ensure more people like me can succeed in academia. Beyond the university, I am an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer at Reachsci and a student panelist for Cambridge-Oxford arc. 

All these roles have been critical in ensuring that black voices are heard. Representation matters and I believe I have the responsibility to help fight and break the intrinsic societal and cultural barriers, pressures, and unconscious biases in science. I hope to make a tangible impact on the lives and experiences of students from underrepresented communities so they can not only have the opportunities that I have had, but more importantly, that they can believe in themselves.


Being thankful and dreaming big

I have learnt so much about myself, I have grown and matured personally and academically. The mighty ups and deep-down lows of the PhD have all made this journey a beautiful one and I know this is just the start. As my PhD journey is slowly coming to an end, there have been so many incredible people in my life that have been there for me all the way… my wonderful family and amazing friends new and old (you all know who you are), and I thank God for bringing them into my life and for giving me such a strong and supportive network to help me stay positive when times have been tough.

I am very much looking forward to the next chapter of my life, and I want to encourage everyone reading this to ‘Stay Blessed’ and ‘Dream Big’! Don’t let anyone tell you your dreams and goals are not attainable because they are! As long as you work hard, stay focused, remain purposeful in your pursuit, and believe in yourself, the sky's the limit! I am a testament to that. The road may not always be straight and narrow, and you may have a few bumps and turns along the way, but with strength and determination, you will get there!


Connect with Samuel


More PhD advice on the Hello Bio blog

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