Tom Chaloner

Tom completed his Biological Sciences degree here with us back in 2016 and is now currently a PhD student (SWBio DTP) at the University of Exeter.

Why did you choose biology at Oxford?

In all honesty I don’t quite remember. I’ve grown a lot as a scientist since being an A level student, so it’s hard to put myself back in that mindset. I do remember being intrigued at how biological systems (i.e. the human body, an ecosystem) managed to function and persist, while being so complex. I think it was the complexities of biology, with each answer bringing up new questions, that kept it interesting and exciting. Oxford specifically though was a bit of a curveball. I obviously had heard of Oxford and had seen that their biology degree was really respected. Basically, I had a spare choice on my UCAS application, and just thought why not? 

What did you enjoy most about your degree? 

It’s too hard to pick one, so here’s a few:
  1. The freedom of being able to choose from such a diverse and cutting edge range of modules taught by experts of the relevant field.
  2. The people, be that other students registered on the biology degree, students at my college and beyond registered on other degrees, or the academics. I felt I learnt just as much directly from my degree itself as I did being exposed to such a range of people from different walks of life and different experiences. That is something I’ll always appreciate from my degree and Oxford generally. 
  3. Not feeling embarrassed or nerdy for being genuinely interested or passionate on a particular subject.

What was your final project on?
The effect of combined stressors on plant root development, and the potential signalling pathways underpinning this.

What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?
How to think critically - a skill that is so fundamental to both general life, as well as your professional life post-university. Although you may not ever encounter the nitty gritty details of what you learn during lectures and tutorials at Oxford ever again, the ability of learning how to pick apart a problem and think about it critically, really is invaluable. I’m sure this skill is what makes me a good PhD student. I owe Oxford a lot for instilling that skill into me. You also obviously gain a range of other useful skills, such as time management, scientific writing, problem solving, etc. 

What did you do after Oxford?
Straight after Oxford I had a short stint as a teacher while on the Teach First Leadership Development Programme. However, that didn’t work out, to say the least… 

What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?

I’m now a PhD student at the University of Exeter. However, I don’t feel too far from Oxford because both of my supervisors (Dr Dan Bebber and Professor Sarah Gurr) are previous Oxford academics - Sarah gave multiple lectures during my first year at Oxford. I love the intellectual curiosity that comes with my job, especially as I find my subject area (plant pathology temperature ecology) genuinely interesting. I love that my topic is really diverse and involves a lot of different skills and techniques, from writing models in R to running infection assess. During my PhD I also took a 3 month (paid) break to live in Brussels and intern with Sense about Science (, which was a great experience. I also enjoy being able to take part in undergraduate teaching. It’s all the parts of teaching that I enjoyed when I was a teacher, without the bits I really didn’t enjoy. 
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for biology at Oxford?
Be sure that biology actually interests you enough to commit three (or now four) years of your life to the subject. You need real passion for a subject to do an Oxford degree in it. Importantly, I’d also say if you are interested - just go for it! I’m the first generation of my family to go to university and if someone had told me during my GCSE’s that I’d be attending Oxford I would have found that idea hilarious.


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