Joining the lab as a Master student

We routinely take Master students from the MRes MCB, the MSc ABB, MSc Bioinformatics and the MRes Synthetic biology stream of the Department of Life Sciences. In the past, we also took students from the MRes Biomedical research of the Faculty of Medicine.

Lab approach and available projects

The main scientific interest of the laboratory is understanding the biological function of sleep. The approach we take is not a mainstream one: rather than considering sleep merely as a problem of neuroscience, we tackle the issue in a different way and consider sleep as a problem of cell biology. The question, therefore, becomes: what happens in a single cell when we sleep? How does sleep favour memory, learning, immune response, mood, etc, at the single cell level? This approach integrates behaviour with genetics and neurobiology of circuits, relying on a multidisciplinary strategy.

We have different projects available in the laboratory and Master students normally have the freedom to join the ones they find more attractive, given their background and interests. If you are interested in joining the laboratory for your project rotation, you are encouraged to make contact with the lab first.

A brief summary of current projects include:

  1. Developing a bioinformatics tool able to analyse behaviour in flies. We created a system called ethoscope, which is unique in the world and gives us the possibility to conduct experiments that nobody else can otherwise perform. We are always working to improve it and modify it. This project may be interesting for students who have a strong background in programming.
  2. We found a way to study how sleeping flies respond (or not) to salient stimuli in their sleep. We give flies an odour stimulus ONLY when they fall asleep and found that only meaningful stimuli are able to wake the flies up. This is similar to what happens to humans, who are able to wake up when someone is whispering their name but, at the same time, can sleep easily in front of a loud action movie. We are using this paradigm to explore the neuronal circuits that make an animal conscious.
  3. We recently described a gene, ninnananna, that regulates sleep by combining the two key sleep pressure sensors: the circadian rhythms and the sleep homeostatic sensor. We aim to investigate how ninnananna works at the cellular level to modulate sleep. This is a project of genetics, biochemistry and behaviour.
  4. Using a maze paradigm, we study how flies behave in social context. We found that the number of flies co-operating in a certain task contributes to their anxiety levels. We are using this paradigm to study the genes underlying stress and anxiety and how they relate to sleep.
  5. Using genomics and transcriptomics, we study how gene expression changes with sleep and sleep deprivation and whether a difference in gene expression can explain anything about the function of sleep.

Working plan

The research plan obviously depends on the chosen project. In the past 7 years, the lab has supervised more than 30 Master students and we normally leave them the chance to pick the project they prefer and contribute intellectually to it with their own take, based on their personal background and ambitions. Depending on the project, the research plan may include cloning of new genes to generate transgenic flies; devising a new paradigm of behaviour or optimising an existing one; collecting high-throughput behavioural data comparing rested vs sleep-deprived flies or mutant vs wild-type flies; studying the pharmacology of compounds on sleep or behaviour.

PhD students and Postdoc will work together with the Master students as day to day supervisors. The only restriction we operate is that we allocate only one student to each supervisor, in the interest of the supervision quality. Usually, we can accommodate up to two Master students in the lab but they will work on different projects. Students will organise their working routines together with their day to day supervisor but they will have a chance to talk to the lab head at least once a week. They may also be asked to present their results at the common lab meeting and will be required to attend all lab meetings and journal clubs. If the student makes an outstanding contribution to the project, they may be offered to be listed as authors on upcoming publications. Frankly, this is very rare but it did already happen in the past.

Skills that will be gained

The lab has a very multidisciplinary approach, being currently constituted by a bioinformatician, two geneticists, an electrophysiologist, a computer scientist. The skill-set to be gained by the Master student is likely to represent the plethora of different skills currently mastered in the entire lab. Besides the classical molecular biology techniques (PCRs and qPCRs, cloning, western blots, confocal imaging, etc), the student will also master a set of more translational skills, such as big data handling, programming, CAD drawing, 3D printing, rudiments of electronics. Some pictures of the lab can be found here.