Summer Research Studentship – Are summer research projects for me?

This summer I spent ten weeks working in a genetics lab at the Cambridge Vet School and this is my story of being working at one of the leading scientific and education institutes in the world, but still being a student.

Having realised that I quite enjoyed doing my second-year research project at the RVC, when I got an email from our Comparative medicine lecturer, Imelda McGonnell, about summer research placements I hoped there might be something of interest here. Outlined in the email were the BBSRC STARS programme options for the coming summer, a whole list of projects that academics from UK veterinary schools and veterinary research institutes (i.e. the Pirbright Institute) had on offer for vet students to come and engage with over the summer.  I was hooked by the prospect of receiving an academic stipend to do interesting work over the summer, and by the line “preference will be given to students applying to placements based at institutions other than their own”. Vet students are pretty loyal to our own schools, but secretly we all want to know what it’s like at the other seven in the country. I continued to read and found several placements that sounded interesting and fired off some emails to projects on viruses, bats, genetics, parasites and bacteriology. Some already had students, some required students from older years, some required specialist skills but one: Dr Lucy Weinert, a Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Cambridge Department of Veterinary Medicine replied immediately offering a phone interview/chat to talk about the project. It became immediately clear that this project, an analysis of genome sequencing from Streptococcus suis mutants, was going to be a large and complex undertaking but it sounded exciting enough to apply for the funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Veterinary Schools Council. In less than a week I had become captivated by this project.

I was lucky enough to win one of the funding places thanks to guidance from Lucy on how to write my application. A week after exams I rock up to the vet school just West of the city centre (away from the infinite French children touring the colleges, and into the fields, surrounded by physics, engineering, and chemistry labs with more Nobel laureates than you can shake a stick at) and wait for my boss for the next two and half months to arrive. I’m greeted by her and her team (a mix of postdocs from all over the world), all of whom are kind, welcoming and perplexed at a vet student coming to do a summer research project: apparently, it’s usually bioscience students. Immediately paranoid, I wonder whether I have made a huge mistake.

Despite never having coded I am slowly dragged through the beginnings of how to code by the brilliantly patient Eric Miller (a microbiologist from the States with a freakish knowledge of computer science) and eventually begin to ask myself “for crying out loud, how have you not worked that out before?” every time I (eventually) work out a new function. I start to really enjoy the computing processes and how they can serve the research. After a week, the whole project is less daunting. I have my own desk, and everything is calm and going smoothly. The next week – not so much. I was asked to present to the Infectious Disease Department about my previous research on Bovine TB with the warning that: “You must bring cake! If you don’t bring cake they get angry and ask nastier questions, it’s kinda like a bribe”. I made cake. Prepped my bTB talk. They liked both.

The summer proceeded to have many of these daunting “I don’t belong at this place” moments during stressful times. It was made better by the lab dinners and other people’s cakes. Everyone I met, from the people I chatted with in the staff room to the Head of Department, James Wood, was so welcoming and genuinely interested in an encouraging about the project I was doing. I only got referred to as a spy from the RVC a couple of times. As well as beginning learning to code, how to survive in a research environment, and what being a vet in academia is like, I had an even better time than I had hoped for. The rush of discovering something, anything that means we know more about which genes being removed help bacterial growth, or about anything, (after weeks of trying to remember where to put the brackets in code) is incredible. Learning what the world of academia is like is also eye-opening. I still don’t know how they have time to teach and do this work.

I am so glad to have done the project, and when March 2018 comes around I would strongly encourage anyone to apply to the scheme. Even if you don’t know whether research is what you want to go into, you learn, receive financial support, meet great people and have a fantastic time. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m presenting the work I did during my project at the inaugural Veterinary Students’ Research Conference in Bristol on the 11th November 2017. The single day conference is free to all vet students and recommended to anyone interested in research in any capacity. To get further details on the event email linda.woolridge@bristol.ac.uk.


See the rest of the issue here: JAVS Autumn 2017

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