William Horspool on his PhD and other adventures

Monday 5 December, 2016

Whether you know him as Will or Bill, you can’t deny that William Horspool’s hometown has the best names – he hails from Dark Corner Road in the village of Sunny Corner. There surely can only be few reasons to leave a place that sounds so pleasant, but William’s will do the trick: he’s residing at Warrane to do his PhD.

William may have only 23 years on him, but he’s certainly been busy: from his Bachelor of Science to his Honours in Genetics - which, in classic uni student style, was half-written in the last three days! Amazingly, he still managed a great mark, and currently, he’s in his first year of a PhD in genetics at UNSW.

“In women, one of the X chromosomes is usually turned off, and I’m looking at that,” said William. While this is usually the case, research shows that one of the female’s X chromosomes is not getting turned off in some species, such as certain birds and the platypus. William’s PhD proposes that it’s because scientists have been looking at the transcription (first) stage of the genetic process, instead of what’s happening later on.

 “It’s really interesting,” he said. “If you want to talk big control on your DNA, that’s probably the biggest single controlling event – the control of the sex chromosomes; and the silencing of one of the female x chromosomes. I’m interested in how we work, and the controlling factors behind what makes us, us.”

His studies will have him looking at the sex chromosomes in a broad range of animals, including possum, platypus, reptiles, humans and more. And while he makes use of his lab space at the uni, it turns out that he also spends time aplenty in front of a screen.

“Most of my days are actually spent on the computer,” said William. “The majority of what I do is actually analysing and sorting and working with data.”

“You’ve got to sit down with all the information you’ve gotten from your experiments – lots and lots of numbers – and you’ve got to try and figure out what that actually means biologically,” he continued.

This semester, William has also taken up teaching for the first time – a second-year genetics course which he hopes to continue teaching next semester too.

“I love it, it is awesome! Teaching is great,” he said. “It provides me with some sort of routine; something I have to do during my week. So I can’t get lost and bogged down into something like deep analysis... Every now and then I have to stop and come back to the real world.”

It’s no wonder that William’s ideal job would be in academia – splitting time between research and teaching.

For now, William claimed that his PhD will take “three years and a lot of stress,” but to be honest, he doesn’t sound too worried.

“So far I haven’t hit the stressful point yet, so I have a lot of time to do all the other things in my life as well – going on adventures and things like that. I suppose it’s just the relaxed nature of it – that I can come and work, and then I can just disappear on an adventure on the weekends,” he said.

By adventures, William was referring to things like bushwalking and exploring. And the fact that he’s living at Warrane means that he always manages to find some company.

“It’s great to be surrounded by interesting and fun people,” he said. “I mean, they’ve always got something going on because they’re uni students, and they’ve got a lot of free time so they can always be dragged along to some sort of adventure or ridiculous exercise...That’s probably the best part of Warrane.”

When he’s not out exploring or up to his ears in data analysis, William has plenty more to keep him busy. He loves his hockey and has run the Warrane team for about four years now, and he’s not one to say no to a good old board game. He’s also travelled extensively around Australia (“I reckon I’ve seen more parts of Australia than most people!”) and is in the process of getting his passport organised so that he can venture overseas for the first time.

With many of his friends at Warrane being international students, William’s planning to use those connections to go exploring the world. First stop? Probably Taiwan. In fact, he’s already learning the language.

“I’m currently learning Chinese so I can go to all these cool places and actually speak to people,” he said. But that’s not all he’s learning. “And I’m currently learning programming...because that’s where biology’s going with computers, and I want to get ahead of everyone else.”

So is he taking classes? Not exactly. “I’ve got a lot of friends that know Chinese and I get them to teach me... and I’ve got a couple of friends here who are doing computing, so I’ve started programming various things... I’m surrounded by knowledge so I may as well take advantage of it!” said William.

William may have to head back to Sunny Corner to see his parents, but he’s lucky to have his brother – an old Warrane boy himself –living nearby.

“My brother’s a bit of an inspiration,” he said. “Or at least if I’m doing anything stupid, he’ll tell me pretty fast. So he’s probably my source of wisdom!”

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