Meet Tasha Hammond

  • Project:  Using Microbial Networks To Quantify Transmission Dynamics of Bovine Tuberculosis – CASE studentship based at Exeter (Cornwall campus) in collaboration with the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA).
  • Past/current DTP student roles: Student Representative for students based at Exeter, Student Support Champion for mature students

What was your journey into academia?

I didn’t follow a typical academic route. I left school at 16 and didn’t do A levels because at that time I still didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I went to college and qualified in Beauty Therapy and then did different types of work such as secretarial and office work, and worked in a call centre.

When I was 24 I started work as a nanny and spent 7 years with the family. During this time, I realised that I really liked science, especially human health.  Although I worked full time during the school holidays, the family’s children were at school during the day, so I signed up to the Open University so that I could study from home. I did a bachelor’s degree in Health Science as this was the closest fit to what I was interested in. It took me 6 years and I finished it when I was 32. By that stage I was working full-time, was married and I had a mortgage.

I joined the NHS where I worked in various roles over the next 4 years, ranging from testing samples to working in quality management systems.  After the NHS, I worked for a few commercial labs, including contract testing and pharmaceutical laboratories, gaining around 5 years of industry experience.

As I was working full time, I couldn’t see how I could do a Masters or a PhD, but knew all along research was what I was interested in.

What attracted you to the SWBio DTP?

I never knew that you could get paid while doing a PhD.  I had always wanted to do a PhD, but I couldn’t see how I could undertake a full-time project and still afford my mortgage and bills. It was a chance conversation with a colleague who said, ‘you do know that you can get a stipend?’

Out in the field doing research

I saw the project advertised on Everyone I spoke with when I was applying had a Master’s degree and I thought I would have to do one too. However, I saw that the skills and training provided by the SWBio DTP’s taught first year would make up for not having a Masters, and so I applied for a CASE studentship.

What is a CASE studentship?

A CASE studentship is a project that is affiliated with a non-academic industry partner in addition to the university. CASE partners are very diverse, ranging from large commercial corporations to government agencies. My PhD will include a 3-month placement with my CASE partner, the Animal & Plant Health Agency, where I can develop and apply my research in an industry setting with the support of a dedicated CASE supervisor.

What was your interview like?

As part of the interview day, we had the opportunity to talk to current students and meet all of the other applicants. I do remember thinking initially ‘they’re all so young!’ and I remember feeling very out of place and very much like an imposter – however I then realised that the two existing SWBio students who talked to us were in their late 20s which was reassuring as they were closer to my own age.

There was a prerequisite of an A level in maths, and of course, I have no A levels! However, I was able to demonstrate equivalent experience thanks to my career in industry and the panel were also interested in the other skills I could bring, and so the interview was fine.

What has your experience been like so far?

It still feels like a novelty being on a university campus and we’ve been able to visit the other universities that collaborate with SWBio. Good bonds and relationships have built up within the cohort and every first year student has a second year DTP student as a ‘buddy’ to help them settle in.

Catching up with the Penryn students as the Student Rep

The taught modules  have enabled me to learn all of the computational skills, such as modelling and statistical analysis, that I would have learned during a Masters degree. The modules are 1-2 weeks long and perhaps their biggest advantage is that every few months all the students in the cohort get to spend time together, developing friendships and sharing peer-to-peer support.

I am very keen to make the most of my university experience and so in my second year I volunteered to be the student representative for Exeter’s SWBio DTP student cohort. My responsibility in this role was to act as a point of contact for Exeter students and represent the student voice at meetings with other SWBio DTP staff and representatives. It also meant that I was involved in organising the annual student-led retreat along with the other student reps – this was a great exercise in collaboration and provided me with my first experience of planning and coordinating a large event. It was a steep learning curve but very rewarding!

What about the social side of being a PhD student?

Within the first few weeks SWBio arranged a social get together at Penryn so that all of the cohorts here, from first year to final year, could meet each other. We were all invited to a restaurant and had a lovely evening. We’ve also had a couple

of online pub quizzes and there is a Student Retreat coming up in August which will include two days of fun, team-building activities. SWBio also host several conferences across the year where we can get together to showcase our research, and of course we all go out for dinner together when attending the taught modules!

What would you say to others who are thinking of applying?

Don’t be afraid to apply, even if you feel like you are “too old” or don’t have enough academic experience! I was accepted onto the SWBio DTP despite my unconventional route to academia, my experience so far has been the epitome of positivity and inclusivity.  It’s easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!