The highs and lows of a PhD in ME research

23rd September 2022

Katharine Seton has recently completed her PhD at the Quadram Institute studying Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

A woman with dark hair smiling, holding papers with the title "Investigating Immune Reactivity to the Intestinal Microbiome in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome"

Myalgic encephalomyelitis is a long-term debilitating condition. It has a wide range of symptoms including extreme post-exertional fatigue, cognitive difficulties and mobility difficulties which are worsened after physical or mental exertion. Katharine’s PhD in the Simon Carding group was funded by the UK charity Invest in ME Research. Her project focused on the autoimmune aspects of the condition. We spoke to Katharine to find out more.

“I chose to do my PhD project in ME/CFS research as I wanted to contribute to and increase the amount of research into this illness. I was diagnosed with ME in January 2009.

I studied Biomedical Science at Newcastle University for my undergraduate degree. I really enjoyed my final year research project on innate immune cell signalling, which inspired me to pursue a PhD. When searching for ME/CFS focused PhD projects only two were available, both at the Quadram Institute and both funded by Invest in ME Research.

I chose to apply for the PhD project which focused on immunology as this was my favourite undergraduate module. I found it interesting how the immune system can contribute both to health (by killing pathogens) and disease (through attacking the body).

The first year of my PhD involved setting up a human study to recruit severe ME/CFS patients and the people they live with as household controls.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was participant recruitment onto the human study. There were many logistical challenges I had to overcome. Due to the nature of the illness sample collection had to be undertaken at participants’ homes. It was initially difficult to find a phlebotomist to attend home visits and then schedule a time where they were available to collect blood sample donations. This led to the biggest frustration I had within my PhD as I was unable to recruit the target sample size.
However, with the samples I collected I carried out experiments to learn more about the immunology of ME.

I developed and optimised research methods such as enzyme linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) to measure antibody levels in biological samples. I also developed flow cytometry methods to both measure the levels of antibody binding to gut microbes, and to determine which gut microbes are recognised by the immune system.

The biggest highlight of my PhD was when I attended and presented at conferences, such as the annual international Biomedical Research into ME Colloquiums hosted by Invest in ME Research. These meetings aim to stimulate discussions between researchers working on ME.

I also enjoyed mentoring college and undergraduate students, teaching them about both the theory behind my experiments and how to use the equipment involved. During my PhD I mentored four people in total, including high school students as part of the Nuffield Research Placement Programme and a trainee clinical scientist from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

There were times during my PhD where I struggled with my own ME/CFS. I would often work long days which resulted in me “burning out”.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD at the Quadram Institute as there is a great student community who hosts events and activities throughout the year.

Throughout my PhD I gained a lot of practical knowledge and experience. I learnt how to be both an independent researcher and work as a team.

I plan to stay in academia and pursue a postdoctoral position in ME/CFS research. I hope to have my own research group one day.”