Finance to cancer research: student story

MPhys graduate Michal Tomaszewski  graduated as the top student on Mathematical Physics degree. Here he shares his story of gaining experience from various financial institutions before changing his path to cancer research.

Michal-Tomaszewski

When I was starting the masters year of my degree in Edinburgh, I was not sure what I would like to be doing. The several summer internships in the trading departments of investment banks, definitely helped my soft skills and business awareness, but I did not really feel like this is the work I would like to be doing for the years to come.

The idea of doing a PhD came to me as soon as I started the MPhys project I did with Dr Bartlomiej Waclaw in experimental biophysics. The exploratory nature of the work we did on the growth patterns of 3D bacterial colonies, trying to put together the various experimental and theoretical observations to make a coherent picture really appealed to me and I started looking online for PhD opportunities combining physics and biology.

While one needs to consider multiple factors such as the project formulation, research focus of the group and group leader, location and financial arrangements, the choice of a suitable PhD very much comes down to meeting the people and seeing the lab and the town – after all this is the environment you would be spending the next three to four years of your life in.

I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MPhys in Mathematical Physics in 2014 and went on to a PhD in cancer imaging at Cambridge University. I focus on the development of a new imaging technique to visualise the blood vessels in cancer tumour and measure their condition. The technology we are working with is called optoacoustics, and it relies on generation of ultrasound in the tissue following laser illumination. When the laser light gets absorbed, especially by strong absorbers such as haemoglobin in the blood, a small amount of heat is generated, causing thermal expansion and creation of a pressure wave which can get detected the same way as in traditional ultrasound imaging. During my work in Cambridge, I’ve developed a way to use this technology to gain insight into how well the tumour vasculature works, which gives doctors an indication of the aggressiveness of the disease and can guide the treatment.

Just like my work involves a mixture of physics and cancer biology, my affiliation is joint between the Department of Physics and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. The latter is where my experiments are, and where I spend most time. Working for Cancer Research UK is a great pleasure, as a generously funded Cambridge Institute greatly supports our research. Especially in the field of imaging, where open access to large and expensive scanners is essential, a well-equipped centre helps the researchers greatly.

I find the work I do incredibly exciting and fulfilling for many reasons:

  • the wide scope of the project, involving working with in vivo tumour models
  • using various imaging modalities and learning to use the equipment as well as
  • being involved on the technical side of signal and image processing
  • writing code…….makes the work very varied and interesting.

Working directly with a cancer research charity, collaborating with clinician scientists provides great motivation as we can feel our advances, although preclinical, could in the future make a real difference in clinical care.

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#ExperienceWorks campagn week beg 6 November

Week beginning 6 November is our focus on work experience and the breadth of things that can count.  I’ll be running two sessions via Collaborate on getting work experience – details on MyCareerHub events. I’ve captured a few students’ very different experiences and what they gained as a result. For more details on the #Experience Works campaign, visit the webpage

Michal Tomaszewski graduated as the top student on Mathematical Physics degree and  is currently working on his PhD in cancer research at Cambridge.  Michal did a business internship in the City and gained experience from various financial institutions before he changed his path to cancer research.   Having done a purely theoretical degree he is now at home in a wet lab. It just shows:

  • it’s good to try different things to work out where your preferences lie
  • starting in one area doesn’t mean you have to stay there
  • no matter what you do, you develop personally and professionally from it

Tara Bruendl (astrophysics)

“In the 2 months that I worked at the European Space Agency, I learnt about the professionalism in the agency and how important good communication between colleagues is. I learnt what it’s like to work independently besides one of the best mission analysts in the world and also receive constructive criticism once in a while.

I was afraid that my programming wasn’t up to scratch but luckily I could pick up the most common routines  fairly quickly. With the help of my very patient supervisor I learnt how to make code more elegant and use as little of it as possible. When I wasn’t debugging the Fortran 5000-plus-liner (yes, in the space sector everything gets recycled, including ancient programs from the 70s) tea breaks would take up second priority, as many staff would joke. The canteen was the meeting place of different sections, ages and nationalities.

If you can, I would always recommend gaining some work experience in the summer, since it not only gives you a head start in job applications but also teaches you a lot about if the job is right for you in the first place. That said, I’m considering a career in the space sector more than ever before and could imagine working as a trainee for ESA or in the space industry after graduating.

Sara Rigby (MPhys)

This summer, I was able to carry out two internships that helped me formulate my career plans much more solidly.

 First of all, I spent a month at a secondary school in York doing a physics teaching placement, arranged by the Ogden Trust. While I started out simply observing lessons, by the time I left I was treated like a teaching assistant: not only did I work with individual students and small groups regularly, but I also got the chance to plan and deliver a whole lesson. On top of this, I ran an extracurricular club with the other intern, and of course I also had to put up a few displays. This gave me a well-rounded view of the different elements of a teacher’s job.

Having a strong foundation of physics knowledge helped me to explain things in a way I found intuitive, and sometimes to link different subject areas together to make useful analogies. I would definitely recommend the Ogden Trust’s Teach Physics internship to anyone who is considering a career in teaching, however unsure they are. The month I spent there gave me a realistic view of life as a teacher, allowing me to make a very well-informed decision about my future career. Even though I won’t be pursuing a career in teaching, I’m really glad I got this opportunity. I really enjoyed the time I spent at the school, and I gained a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to communicate effectively.

Shortly after this, I travelled to Bristol, where I spent two weeks doing work experience with BBC Focus Magazine, a science and technology publication. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I got to write while I was there. Most of what I contributed was published on the website, but one very short ‘Eye Opener’ piece – an extended caption to accompany a striking image – made it into the most recent print issue. I wrote a feature on weird and wonderful pain relief; I contributed to the ongoing ‘This Day in Science History’ series; I interviewed a renowned cosmologist from MIT about his new book on artificial intelligence.

One skill that came in useful in particular was the ability to research a topic, quickly understand the basics, and distil it down to the essential and most interesting parts; for once, I was thankful that I’d done the group project the previous year! I loved my time at the magazine: I was fascinated by the day-to-day organisation, especially leading up to their publication day, and I realised how much I love writing about science. This helped me to decide that I want to pursue a career in science communication once I graduate.”