Real Voices interview: Dr Jennifer Morgan
Meet Jennifer, a cell biologist at University College London
Jennifer Morgan is a scientist studying the cells that help muscle regenerate. She told Emma James about exploring the properties of stem cells, the diseases and conditions her research might help treat, and how a year in the lab after she graduated convinced her to take a PhD.
(This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.)
What do you do?
I work in the Dubowitz Neuromuscular Centre at the University College London Institute of Child Health. We’re trying to find out more about the cells that control muscle regeneration and how the environment can be modified to promote their activity. This is applicable to muscular dystrophy, muscle injuries and muscle ageing.
What is muscular dystrophy?
Muscular dystrophies are defined as hereditary, progressive conditions that lead to deterioration of muscle mass and function. The most common muscular dystrophy is Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an X-linked condition that leads to the absence of the protein dystrophin in muscle fibres.
What cells do you study?
Our skeletal muscle consists of lots of long muscle fibres, which have got lots of nuclei, and they contain the contractile elements of the muscle. On the edge of these fibres are ‘satellite cells’, which become activated in young muscle that is growing or muscle that’s been injured. They can proliferate and make a pool of muscle precursor cells, which can either repair the muscle fibres or replace them by making completely new fibres. They can also give rise to more satellite cells, and so are, by definition, a muscle-specific stem cell.
How might these be useful?
You can inject satellite cells into dystrophic muscle and they can regenerate muscle fibres. However, the main problem of this treatment is that satellite cells can act only very locally. In conditions such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy all the muscles of the body are affected, so ideally you’d like a stem cell you could inject and get to all muscles via the blood system. So we’re also exploring other sorts of stem cells, which other groups have shown can spread throughout the body.
How do you study muscular regeneration?
We’ve got some mouse models of muscular dystrophy, and we transplant cells from normal donors into these models. The donors are usually genetically modified to express a marker gene so that we can follow the fate of transplanted cells to see if they make muscle and reconstitute the muscle stem cell pool.
Why did you choose this career?
I think it was just by chance initially! When I graduated many years ago I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I saw a one-year post advertised on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, so I thought it would be a good thing to do without committing myself to anything more. I really enjoyed it, so I stayed in the same group and did a PhD.
The most rewarding aspect of this job is when you find something new and interesting that’s unexpected – for example, an unusual type of cell making lots of muscle. I also supervise a number of PhD students, so encouraging them and seeing them become really interested is great.
Salary guide (2017)
Postdoctoral researcher: £29,000–£35,000 (Prospects).
Essential subjects (2017)
To research in this kind of area, you’ll need to do a biology-based degree, which will usually require two science A levels, including biology (UCAS).