Science is a great thing to learn about; a desire to understand the world around us is engrained into everyone, so it’s no surprise that you’ll be reading this. You want to learn something new.
But how do we come to know the things that we learn about in schools, universities, documentaries, science blogs, and so on? People dedicate their lives to researching particular areas of interest so that they can contribute their little piece of the jigsaw to the huge, unsolved puzzle that is our universe. Their findings can have great implications and help to address the growing list of global issues we’re faced with today. Maybe you’re content with learning something that people already knew, or maybe you want to be part of the investigative process and learn new things on behalf of everyone else. Maybe you want to be an expert in your little niche. Postgraduate study and research jobs in industry or academic institutions could be the path for you in life.
Being a successful scientific researcher requires a lot of experience and dedication over an entire career. It can also take a long time for findings to be fully understood or acknowledged, with the average age of Nobel Prize winners since 2001 being a ripe 66. The key issue here is experience – deciding to pursue an MSc, a PhD, or a job that involves a substantial research project could be a step into the unknown if you haven’t yet experienced any scientific research.
Undergraduate lab sessions usually aim to educate students about basic techniques and practices used in research and don’t give much insight into how to plan, execute and review an entire project independently.
In order to gain this understanding, you must find a way to experience research beyond your degree. Many academic institutions now offer undergraduate research experience schemes that allow students to spend a few weeks working on a project, usually during the summer holidays.
One issue for students is that this time could otherwise be spent earning money to be able to afford their education, and so these schemes can offer a bursary (through the institutions themselves or organisations such as the Wellcome Trust) to cover living costs and help prevent the smashing of emergency piggy banks.
Photo Credit: University of Sheffield I took part in one such scheme this year – the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). It started with an email to an academic who had given a pH7 talk on science communication that I attended, Professor Allan Pacey. His research into male fertility interested me and he was very engaging in the way he communicated science, and so I knew that I would enjoy working with him. I expressed an interest in gaining experience in his labs, and together we sent off an application to the SURE administrators.
I was accepted onto the scheme and undertook a 6-week summer placement in the University’s Academic Unit of Reproductive Health and Medicine, assisting an MSc student, Anna Poptsi, in her investigation into the effect of sexual lubricants on sperm function.
During the project, I assisted in mounting specimens onto microscope slides and staining them for observation under a fluorescent microscope to determine if the sperm cells had undergone DNA damage, tyrosine phosphorylation or acrosome reaction. These are markers to determine if the sperm cells are competent to fertilise an egg and therefore allow us to evaluate the effect of different lubricants on the samples.
Credit: Gregor Lawrence/Anna Poptsi
I became more independent as I got more comfortable with the work I was undertaking, leaving Anna to work on other aspects of the project and speed up the process with deadlines looming.
I was taught useful lab techniques and saw that there needed to be a fine balance between the time spent planning for experiments and in the lab carrying them out. Things in life generally tend not to follow your best-laid plans, and this is definitely no different with a lab coat on and pipette in-hand. Biological matter can be notoriously temperamental and there are many opportunities for errors to be made in the multi-step processes involved in such a project.
Credit: Gregor Lawrence/Anna Poptsi
There is a need to be able to identify and iron out any errors that may affect the findings of a research project, and this can only be done by experiencing these errors first hand in the lab. I also saw that research requires a decisive attitude, as sheer persistence could only serve to waste valuable time and resources.
The SURE scheme allowed me to apply my knowledge of Biomedical Science in a practical manner and gain a better understanding of how the world of research works. I was able to network with other researchers and attend departmental meetings, symposiums and seminars to further my experience with the scientific community. The scheme also enabled me to share these experiences with other undergraduate researchers across different faculties, with a showcase of all the projects scheduled for early next year.
Undergraduate research experience schemes are an excellent opportunity to experience research first-hand and find out where your interests really lie. My own experience has equipped me with the confidence to plan and carry out other research projects in future and has already been hugely beneficial in the third year of my studies.
I have now transferred onto the Integrated Master’s degree in Biomedical Science and although I may not want to pursue a PhD or a career in scientific research, I have gained and demonstrated many transferable skills that could give me a competitive edge over other graduates when applying for jobs in the future.
Photo Credit: Gregor Lawrence
Even if you’re not entirely sure that the world of research is for you, undergraduate research experience allows you to explore new areas of science and will open doors as you look to build a career after graduating.