Making big career decisions before you graduate can be difficult for every student. But when it comes to scientific research, lots of students’ first experience of independently planning experiments comes after they’ve already committed to spending the next few years of their life on a PhD.
Universities and institutes are offering more undergraduate research projects, but while many highlight the academic and career progression benefits, summer research projects can also be a relatively low-commitment way to learn about the reality of research. The organisational skills, independence and attitude required for a scientific career are hard to convey in a standard taught university course – the Crick’s undergraduate programmes aim to help with this.
“We want to help students make informed decisions about their future careers” said Sally Leevers, the Crick’s Director of Academic Training. “When undergraduate students join the Crick, they’re getting a real look inside a lab and seeing what their career could look like. Even if they find out that it’s not for them, that can sometimes be just as important!”
Here at the Crick, undergraduate students regularly join one of our research groups or science technology platforms. They spend either a summer or a year working on an independent project and becoming part of the team.
Trial and error
Vickie Boulat was a summer student in Victor Tybulewicz’s lab at the Crick this year and worked with postdoc Rifdat Aoidi to study the cardiac defects that occur in Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome (also known as Trisomy 21) is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra copy of part or all of chromosome 21. An extra copy of chromosome 21 has a number of different effects, including heart defects also known as a ‘hole in the heart’.
Vickie spent the summer analysing hearts from Down Syndrome mouse embryos which show similar heart defects to the ones seen in people with Down Syndrome. She examined the endocardial cushions – which go on to form the heart’s valves – and measured the effect of the extra chromosome on the density of cells.
“It’s been so different to the rest of my degree,” says Vickie. “When you’re at university, you do practical lab sessions but they never last more than an afternoon or a day. If things don’t work, you just accept it and move on. In the lab, you have to practice and repeat things until you’re good at them. You need to try different approaches until you find things that work.”
A look inside
Vickie’s supervisor Rifdat wanted to show her the reality of life in the lab. “When you’re working with mice, you have to plan your work very carefully around them. They don’t always keep to our schedules! Initially, we worked together to plan her work but Vickie picked it up really quickly and was planning out her own weeks and experiments before too long. She presented at our lab meetings a few times during her time here and got to know so many people around the building.
“It’s always going to be a challenge to find a project that gives interesting results within nine weeks, but when I went to the student symposium at the end of the summer, almost everyone had tangible results that they’d been able to find themselves.”
Millie Race spent a year in Nate Goehring’s group at the Crick as part of her degree. Alongside her research project, she learnt more about what life as a scientist could look like. “I had the chance to take part in public engagement activities during my time at the Crick, helping a Year 5 class to learn about electrical circuits and talking to the public about my work in one of the Crick’s ‘Meet a Scientist’ sessions. This gave me a passion for science communication that will absolutely stay with me for the rest of my career.”
A doctor and a scientist
While doing a placement year can be a key part of some degrees, for students on degree courses that don’t traditionally prepare people for research careers, time in the lab can reveal a whole new career option.
Jane Li is a medical student who spent the summer in Rupert Beale’s lab at the Crick, using artificial intelligence to distinguish between different cell types. “Before this, the only experiments I’d done – you know the results, you know what should happen, and you don’t really think about why you’re doing it. When the experiment is part of something bigger, you actually care about the results.
“It was also really cool to meet so many people at the Crick who were both doctors and researchers! I don’t think I realised how many people were both until now – I was always bumping into people who were doctors and I felt like a part of a group.”
Not everyone will decide they want a research career after a placement but for some it confirms that science is for them.
“I’m more confident about applying to PhDs in the increasingly near future now that I know what life in a lab is really like,” said Vickie. “Before the internship, I thought I wanted to be a researcher, and now I know that I want to be a researcher.”