Today was another huge moment for the Lantsandlaminins team… Conor “Conro” Sugden passed his viva voce (PhD thesis defence) and will be accepted into the academy as Dr Conor Sugden. He has already informed his friends and family that they should only use his official title from now on and, to be fair, he has earned it through many years of hard work. A big thank you to Prof Colin Jahoda and Dr Kazuhiro Yamamoto for examining his thesis in a solid 4h30 exam today!*
Conro joined the Hamill lab a long time ago in Jan 2017 as a Masters in Research Student where he conducted two of his lab rotations with our team (project 1, project 2). Back in those halcyon times Conro was Conor of course, but an early spelling mistake changed everything**. Some might say that those two rotations sealed Conro’s fate to pursue research into LaNts and laminins; however, I prefer to say that they merely whetted his appetite.
Immediately after his Masters, Conro started his PhD research, supervised by myself and Prof George Bou Gharios. I think Conro will always remember the interview for the position, first for the difficulty faced in finding the interview location and then for the infamous question asked by Prof GBG! You can also read about some of Conro’s early thoughts about his PhD in the post that he wrote here.
Conor’s research has centred around the function of the LaNt a31 protein. Specifically, he was tasked with conducting the first ever experiments into LaNt function in vivo. It was a massive undertaking involving a wide range of approaches. Indeed, the whole journey was fraught with so many challenges that we affectionately referred to it as the “LaNt Wars” saga (this link takes you to a lay friendly version of that work).
However, thanks to Conor’s perseverance despite the many challenges faced (including a global pandemic that stopped everything), the work has now been published in a really beautiful paper published recently in FASEB J. This work is genuinely hugely important both for the immediate implications of the findings to the matrix biology field but also for the opportunities it now opens for further work using the experimental tools that Conor generated.
But that’s not all.
The FASEB J paper is a massive accomplishment in itself but it is not the only project Conor has been involved with. He really has been a central player in the team for the last 5 years. He was involved in this paper describing LaNt distribution in human tissues (lay friendly link), he co-wrote this review with Liam Shaw, and in his thesis are two chapters worth of data that will hopefully be published soon. One of those chapters stems from work undertaken with Alexander Nystrom in Freiburg during a 3 month placement there (Conor’s blog posts about that time #1 #2). More lately he has been working on a new therapy for the genetic eye disease aniridia.
Have I said enough? Not even close. Those points were about the research side of his PhD studies but Conor also was actively involved in public outreach including museum “meet the scientists“, he appeared on the Channel 4 show about sunscreen application, he presented his work at conferences, he helped supervise Masters, Undergrad and PhD students and he provided much of the inspiration for the lab cartoon series. He even appears in the life in the lab book!
A PhD project is a emotional journey of discovery. It is more like on-the-job apprenticeship than a taught degree. Conor has really lived the journey and his moving on to pastures new (a postdoc in Barcelona) leaves a massive hole in the team. Since leaving he has already had meeting with 4 different members of the team to explain discrete protocols of stuff he worked out!
Congratulations Conro**, Ron, Ronald, Ronnie, McSuigbo**, Schmooboy… or, perhaps easier and definitely more accurately, Dr Sugden.
*In fairness, Conro decided to give a 1h30 presentation to start.. somewhat misunderstanding the brief of a “quick overview”
**was it really a spelling mistake? There is an alternate hypothesis outlined on this page – The story behind the name Conro – it is truly an enlightening read.