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Experience Postgrad Life Sciences

Enhancing diversity among life scientists of the future
In conversation with three of our Summer 2021 interns, we learned more about their experience on the programme.

Zara is a biomedical science student at the University of Warwick. During EPLS, she worked in Stephen Graham’s lab in the Department of Pathology. Her work involved understanding the roles of herpesvirus proteins in the secondary envelopment of virions.

Pavan is a student studying Biological Sciences at the University of Hertfordshire. On his EPLS Summer Internship at the University of Cambridge he worked in Matthias Landgraf’s lab in the Department of Zoology. His work involved understanding the role of critical periods and how transient life experiences for example temperature and neuronal activity leave lasting effects on the nervous system using the model organism Drosophila melanogaster. 

Mirza studies Biochemistry at the university of Huddersfield. For his EPLS project he worked within the proteomics department of the Institute of Metabolic Sciences within an LC-MS lab where he investigated the use of an alternative internal standard to spike in samples used for detecting metabolic diseases, principally diabetes for proteins with a low abundance.

How did you find out about the programme?

Zara: I found out about the programme through my university’s careers service; they sent an email with summer internship opportunities, and I looked into them further, confirmed I was eligible, and decided to apply. The fact that this programme offered a well-rounded experience with laboratory work, training sessions, and mentoring caught my interest.

Pavan: I came across the program through the advertisements sent out by my university course head for summer internships. I then did further research on the programme by looking over the website and reading over each section and the various research themes. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should apply as it was Cambridge, however, I saw that it was for second year students that had no lab experience, and this immediately drew me to apply. 

Mirza: I found out about the programme via my academic tutor in the University of Huddersfield who encouraged me to apply so I could explore my passion for metabolic sciences and proteomics within a professional lab setting. I also wanted to gain real world lab experience which, as COVID19 has highlighted, is a vital aspect that should not be taken for granted.

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

Zara: A lot of experiments required long waiting periods or for some things to be left overnight, so I would often start experiments that I would finish the next morning. A typical day in the lab involved reading through my notes to refresh my memory on where I’m up to, and then checking on experiments I did the day before, such as seeing if there was bacterial growth on the plates I prepared, or if my liquid cultures grew successfully. The rest of my day depended on the results of these experiments. Sometimes, I would have to re-do some steps, and other times the experiments worked so I would move onto the next stage. The techniques I used often were PCR, microscopy, tissue culturing for co-transfection, and protein structure visualisation. 

It was really rewarding when the experiments went as planned, but it was also a fun challenge to problem solve when my results were unexpected. It is very different from teaching labs at university, because longer projects force you to constantly think about the purpose of doing the experiments, as well as what could be going on to prevent them from working or how else you could approach the research question. 

Pavan: During the first two weeks in the lab I learned new techniques, such as dissecting larvae, antibody staining, confocal microscope imaging, crawling behavioural analysis. I mostly focused on crawling behavioural analysis during the course of my internship. I was also given papers to read beforehand as I was new to the subject field of Developmental and Regenerative Biology. Once I was becoming more independent and used to the lab environment, I would plan out a couple of weeks beforehand as setting up laying pots of the fruit flies takes a few days of preparation, so it was important to plan experiments early. The start of the morning was normally used for preparation for the experiments on that day such as making agarose gel or making drug concentrations in yeast paste to later feed the adult flies. I would use Monday and Friday to record the larvae crawling as that is how I set up my day lay in advance so that the larvae would reach the developmental stage of 3rd instar in their life cycle. During the rest of the week, I would use the time to complete data analysis to also make sense of the crawling data that I collected previously. I would also check in with my supervisor on how experiments are going and if there are any concerns or adjustments that can be made to them. 

Mirza: Typically, the first thing to do is to check which samples have been running, are they complete and then do the data processing. Due to the process time of LC-MS, in particular high-resolution variants such as an Orbitrap, the data processing for these are useful things to do during downtime. A lot of my lab work is balancing multiple aspects and ensuring I don’t waste time. It can be beneficial to remake reagents if they have been sitting for a while so check the date on the label.  I then do sample preparation for the LC-MS machines which takes roughly a day. This involves dilutions to get concentrations aligned with the calibration curves, making of solutions to compare internal standards (mostly lysozyme C compared to the existing standard of bovine serum insulin via spiking into a solvent) or to compare organic solvents to spike into. I would then load them into 96 well plates alongside more reagents and the human plasma we test with. Then, centrifuge, transfer supernatant over then dry down via a solvent evaporator followed by treatment with reagents to accompany solid phase extraction and further dry downs. Following this, I would do reduction, alkylation, and digestion steps accompanied with overnight incubation. In the next morning, addition of solvent to place the sample back into solution then run within LC-MS machines and process.

What did you get up to outside of the lab?

Zara: We had lots of social activities planned, both by the mentor team at Fitzwilliam College and our BBSRC mentors. Other than that it was really nice to explore Cambridge cafes, parks, and gardens with fellow interns. Our favourite was Jack’s Gelato.

Pavan: At first, I was overwhelmed by Cambridge! Though after a tour of the city centre I began to explore Cambridge by myself. Visiting the local museums such as Fitzwilliam, which houses antiques and artwork from various time periods such as Italy in the 15th century to French artwork through the 17th-18th. I also took walks along the river Cam which is beautiful for an evening stroll. As part of the programme many social activities were scheduled so I didn’t have to arrange that many days out. These were great ways of exploring Cambridge and also to appreciate its history and culture. These activities ranged from punting (boat ride along the river Cam), open air cinema viewings, botanical garden tours, Shakespeare festival events and art and museum tours. 

Mirza: Exploring Cambridge which is beautiful and lively. Talk to the fellow interns, PhD students and just about anyone that would give me their time – there are so many fascinating people you will meet here. So, don’t be afraid to reach out; people greatly appreciate it.

What is one thing you particularly enjoyed and didn't enjoy during your time as an intern?

Zara: I really enjoyed meeting so many different people who share an interest in scientific research, such as interns from all over the UK, as well as PhD students, postdocs and PIs from lots of different labs in Cambridge. My lab was in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, so I didn’t really enjoy the long commute between the lab and our biostatistics sessions in the city centre, because it meant I had to leave the lab early and postpone experiments.

Pavan: I particularly enjoyed meeting all the other interns and talking about our work. We all came from various parts of the UK, so it was amazing to meet new people and get to know their life experiences and how they feel about careers in academia. I’ve learned a lot from just listening to the other interns talk about their work in the lab. It also made me more enthusiastic about talking about my work to others who have a high level of understanding even if not in the same field as you. I have made great friends with the other interns, and I hope to keep in contact with them after the internship. On a similar note, I also enjoyed talking to my supervisor about his work and listening to his journey becoming a group leader of a lab.

One thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy at first was taking part in all other training programme events as I found it overwhelming to have lab work, biostats sessions and also lectures on the same day. I got used to this over time, but would have liked even more time in the lab or a break in between sessions.

Mirza: I enjoyed getting to understand and integrate into the workflow of a lab alongside learning how to improve my own workflow. 

One thing you learned that you didn't know before?

Zara: Having biostatistics training and lectures alongside lab work was a great opportunity. I learned so much, like how to use R and the importance of clear data visualisation, as well as more information about science communication, the publishing process, and how to give good presentations. 

Pavan: I learned that with the PhD postgraduate application process you need to use your own initiative and reach out to supervisors who are working on a project that is similar to what you would like to do in the future or who has written papers that interest you. Also researching funding opportunities early in the process is essential... 

Mirza: How to work around others within a lab setting whilst getting the most out of one another.

What do you think you gained from this experience?

Zara: It was useful to experience what the day-to-day can be like in a lab environment. I learnt a lot about how to design and troubleshoot experiments and utilise different techniques. The best part was interacting with so many scientists at all stages of their careers, from PIs to interns, and hearing about everyone’s journeys into academia.

Pavan: I am communicating scientifically better with others. I have learned to listen to what others are doing and to ask the right questions in order to fully understand the reasons behind their experiments and what their results have shown so far. In the end, I felt confident with the experiments I was doing and the reasoning behind them. I also found that I could offer ideas for experiments or points to consider after looking at my previous work. I believe I have also begun to develop my skill in critical thinking although I know I will need to work on this. 

Mirza: A new perspective of what is expected in postgraduate study but, at least personally, the confidence to pursue a postgraduate career path as this time has only made my passion for metabolic sciences and proteomics grow.

How do you think the internship will impact your future career?

Zara: This internship allowed me to develop my scientific skills immensely. I learnt new techniques and gained laboratory experience that is especially valuable in the context of the pandemic. I am also more certain now that I enjoy research, and I will be applying to postgraduate programmes with a better understanding of my strengths and interests within biomedical research.

Would you recommend this internship to others? Why?

Zara: Definitely! It is a great experience and you learn so much. It’s a good way to confirm whether research is something you really want to do at postgraduate level and beyond.

Pavan: I would definitely recommend this internship to others. It is a great opportunity to gain valuable lab experience and to experience the life of a postgraduate student. This internship has encouraged me to actively seek out PhD degrees which I had not thought about before. 

Mirza: Yes. It may seem a short time but you learn so much and the skills you take will be useful not just academically but universally.

Give one piece of advice to a future intern.

Zara: Be proactive. Read notes and protocols the night/morning before you go into the lab, keep on top of biostatistics work and attempt the extra exercises, meet up with mentors, and contact PIs whose research interests you for a chat. The worst that can happen is they say no, but most people are willing to help and may even arrange for you to visit their lab and see what they do for a day!

Pavan: I would say take advantage of all the resources you have available to you. Your supervisors and the post docs who take you under their wing are there to help you grow as a scientist and also fulfil your potential. Your mentors are also great to talk to for advice and to gain insight into their life as a postgraduate student even if they are in a completely different subject field. Also, if you hear about a particular project that a lab is undertaking in Cambridge which interests you, then you should definitely try and reach out to the lab group to see if you could take a look around. 

Mirza: Communicate with your supervisor, they can’t read minds. If you have an issue, bring it up and share with them since they can almost always remedy the problem.