News / 26 March 2017

Morgan Oatley –  Australian EMBL International PhD student (Monterotondo, IT)

Morgan Oatley is one of Australia’s first students to enter the esteemed EMBL International PhD Programme. In May 2015, Morgan joined the Lancrin Group (EMBL Monterotondo) - a team dedicated to improving methods for generating blood cells from pluripotent stem cells where she studies embryonic haematopoiesis. Prior to joining EMBL Italy, Morgan completed a Bachelor of Arts/Science followed by Honours in Anatomy and Developmental Biology in 2014 at Monash University, Melbourne.

PhD Student Morgan Oatley

What are your thoughts on the EMBL International PhD Programme?

Being part of the EMBL International PhD Programme has been an incredible opportunity. There have been many benefits to studying in Europe, but the one that stands out most is having cutting-edge resources that I can access right here at my doorstep.  Another is being part of the collaborative and enthusiastic culture of EMBL – it’s a place where researchers are inspired to share information, seek input from those around you and try new techniques. I’m constantly encouraged to challenge myself and to develop multi-disciplinary skills.

What’s it like studying abroad?

Studying for your PhD overseas can be quite challenging, especially when you are so far away from family and friends. Luckily at EMBL, you make friends quickly. EMBL is truly a uniquely international environment, one that has given me many professional and personal development opportunities. On a professional level, I’ve been able to upskill in all sorts of areas and have had the opportunity to network on an international scale. I have met, interacted and collaborated with people from all around the globe, which is very exciting.

"Studying for your PhD overseas can be quite challenging, especially when you are so far away from family and friends. Luckily at EMBL, you make friends quickly. EMBL is truly a uniquely international environment, one that has given me many professional and personal development opportunities." 

What has been your professional highlight so far?

My professional highlight so far was attending the bioinformatics course designed for second-year PhD students at the EMBL Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge. One of my goals for my PhD studies is to become much more comfortable in a computational environment – to that end, the course was invaluable.

What are you working on for your PhD?

My PhD is in embryonic haematopoiesis. Embryonic haematopoiesis is where the first haematopoietic stem cells emerge from the primitive aorta in the embryo and expand to the liver, finding their home in the bone marrow, where they stay for the rest of your life and generate all your blood cells. My PhD focus has been on how the first haematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) arise from endothelial precursors in the primitive aorta.

Although HSPCs have been studied for a long time, there is still no definitive markers for them or the endothelial cells (haemogenic endothelium) that give rise to them. My challenge is to characterise sub-populations in the primitive aorta that contribute to haematopoietic stem and progenitor cell development.

My aim is to identify a marker for the specific endothelial cells that have the potential to form blood cells. I have been using a combination of techniques in my research, including in vivo work with flow cytometry, immunofluorescence, single-cell transcriptomics, and in vitro culturing of mouse embryonic stem cells.

There has been a lot of focus on haematopoietic research because of the use of blood products in a medical setting to tackle blood loss, cancer and other immune-related diseases – the underpinning idea being that if we understand how the first haematopoietic cells emerge, we can re-capitulate this process in vitro to avoid problems that arise from using bone marrow and blood donors.

What insight have you gained from studying overseas that you may not have had you remained in Australia?

One thing EMBL’s International PhD Programme has given me is a new perspective on how the tertiary education system operates in Australia compared to that in Europe. In Europe, there is a lot more focus on laboratory experience at the Bachelors level.  Many students also take part in the Erasmus Programme (a European Union exchange program), which allows many young undergraduates to undertake training in other countries during their undergraduate courses – a concept that is far less common in Australia. Therefore, extra laboratory experience is essential to compete with European students for a position at the EMBL laboratories. One of the things I think secured my place in the International PhD Programme was the extra laboratory experience I gained under the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and my incredibly supportive supervisors (Dr Duangporn Jamsai and Prof Moira O’Brien at Monash University). Finding a mentor early in your science career is essential.

I have thrived as an EMBL PhD student in Italy.  One thing I have certainly learnt while studying abroad is to be patient. Very rarely can you fix a problem on your first attempt in a new country when you don’t know the system or how things work. You must ‘keep calm and persevere’ – much like we do in science, really. I am thankful for the unique opportunity to be a part of EMBL and to study abroad in such an amazing place with such fantastic people and facilities.

What do you say to students thinking about applying to the EMBL International PhD Programme?

I would encourage all students from Australia to explore the EMBL International PhD Programme and consider applying. Put yourself out there, challenge yourself and just apply!

Registration for the EMBL International PhD Programme closes on April 10. Find more information about the program here.