Alumni Stories – Ruby joins research team at Oxford University on her PhD journey!

Former Chapeltown Student Ruby Nixson left Chapeltown Academy and headed for Oxford university. She graduated with a First-Class Honours degree and has now been offered the chance to fulfil her dream of combining Maths and Science in important Cancer research.


Ruby, you achieved a first at Oxford and now you are going on to study for a fully funded PhD Wow! Tell us more about your journey…

I applied for various PhD positions in mathematical biology across the UK and was incredibly lucky to be offered a fully funded position to stay in Oxford.

My research relates to tumours and I’m looking at mathematical models for how mitotic cell-cycle progression is affected by fluctuating oxygen levels in tumours.

I did a research internship during summer 2021 with one of my tutors at Oxford and I enjoyed the work. It looked at a very different application of maths (fluids through a reactor), but I enjoyed the research and exploration side of it. I spent a lot of time learning how to implement code to solve systems that couldn’t be analysed by hand, and I knew that I wanted my next step after the degree to involve coding while also making use of the degree content.


You have such a passion for Maths and Science – how did that develop?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve preferred STEM subjects. Maths has always come the most naturally to me  and for a long time, I wanted to work in medical research, but then I realised how much more I enjoyed maths. It’s nice that my current work has come full circle now that I’m looking at mathematical oncology for my PhD. I used my GCSE maths lessons to start looking at early A-level work and that really helped me to realise that it was something I could see myself doing for a long time, and this was further cemented during my A-levels.


What was your experience like at Chapeltown Academy – did any teachers or the atmosphere contribute to your success?

Honestly it was great – I don’t think I could’ve had a better experience anywhere else. The smaller size of the cohorts meant that everyone was a friendly face. The atmosphere was really encouraging, and I think this was helped by the fact that everyone knew each other. Even teachers that didn’t teach you would know you, and it felt like everyone was in it together. I won’t mention the maths teachers as I know they’ve all changed now, but Dayle taught my chemistry class in year 13 and the teaching was probably the best I ever had.


You have achieved a first-class honours degree from Oxford University – that is quite something! What was it like at Oxford?

Strange, but in the best way. The teaching style is quite different to a lot of other universities in that the classes are a lot smaller, so I was often in a class with one other student and the tutor. It means you can really get to grips with the content as you have this small group time with experts in the topic. Every student at Oxford is assigned to a college, which is where they live and have their smaller group teaching. This made it easy to make a good group of friends from a variety of subjects as we all went for dinner in the dining hall every night. The history of the city is great, and it’s a beautiful place to live, but it’s the variety of people I met there that really made my experience what it was. Even within my close group of friends, there’s everything from scientists to music teachers and filmmakers. I wouldn’t change any of it.


What is your advice to our students contemplating a future at university? 

I’d say that if you’re passionate about your subject, go for it! Aside from the practical benefits of having a degree, it’s a really great way to meet a variety of people who are all passionate about their different subjects. The first few months can seem nerve-wracking as you settle in, but it’s such a good way to start building an adult life.


 Your work now will be contributing greatly to original research – is that an appealing aspect of it for you?

Definitely. I think that the higher you go through education, the more you realise how much you (and everyone else) doesn’t know about the subject. So, in that respect, I’m very aware that any successful work I do will be a very, very, very small dent in the huge research area of oncology. That doesn’t make it any less exciting though. I’ve been in my research group for around 7 weeks now, and it’s been the most interesting 7 weeks of my life – seeing the range of work that everyone else in the group is doing makes me really excited to see what results come out of it.