Signalling pathways lead to international success
Nuffield placement student Jiaqi Chen looks back on a life-changing year, which started and ended with projects in Michael Wakelam's lab.
Every summer the Institute welcomes gives A-level students for four weeks of lab experience through the Nuffield Student Placement scheme. In 2016, I was lucky enough to be one such student, and now that I am able to look back from the perspective of two years later I thought I’d share some of the incredible and unexpected influences that my month at Babraham had on my life.
My placement in Michael Wakelam’s lab took place just a few weeks before I arrived at the crossroads of choosing a university course. I was taken under the wing of a brilliant supervisor, Simon Rudge, who walked me through the process of expressing the C. elegans protein acs-19 in mammalian cells – the first step in a project with the overall aim of producing a purified solution of the protein so that its function could be determined.
It was without a doubt both a rewarding and eye-opening experience; it shed new light on how complex and interconnected signalling pathways really were, whilst bringing my understanding of gene technology much further than my A-levels alone could achieve.
In the weeks leading up to the placement I had already in my mind a career in dentistry. Ultimately, the allure of stability plus a structured work-life balance had won me over, and that was what I ended up opting for when university application deadlines rolled around. At first it would have seemed that my placement had failed to persuade me to pursue research, but life doesn’t always proceed in a straightforward fashion.
The next stop was the annual UK Young Scientists & Engineers Competition. With a month-long STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) project already under my belt it only seemed sensible to submit an application, A few months later I was showcasing my project as a competitor at the 2017 Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, alongside 200 other applicants. Over two days I presented to judges and the public with homemade posters and a budding enthusiasm for cell signalling. I doubt I was even close to winning one of the prizes, but being coaxed into researching deep into the depths of cell signalling and gene technology as preparation had opened my eyes further to fascinating subject of biology.
In doing so, it reinforced my feelings of uncertainty in choosing dentistry over biology, but truthfully it was the fear that it was too late to change – that I had already spent an entire year focused on nothing but perfecting my dental application – that made me stay on that career path.
At around the same time the selection for another STEM competition, the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) was taking place at an even larger scale, where 7500 students from across the UK were entered by their schools into preliminary rounds of biology exams. The top four then represent the UK and compete against the 67 other participating countries at the international meeting.
I distinctly remember how unreachable even the top sixteen seemed at the time, and having always looked up to the students in past UK teams I didn't even consider making the top four as within the realm of possibility. Yet, the selection exams that previously seemed about as legible to me as a foreign language now made perfect sense, in light of the experience gained from my time at the Institute and the Young Scientists & Engineers Competition. That summer, three other equally surprised teenagers and I had the extraordinary privilege of being chosen for the IBO 2017.
The week of the IBO was filled with the excitement of meeting biologists from across the world along with the slight stress of the increasingly intimidating exams scattered in between. But, most importantly, it was here where I finally met the professors, researchers and other students that gave me the last push I needed to realise I was in fact better suited as a scientist rather than a dentist. I finally gained the confidence to let go of the hundreds of hours I had spent trying to become the perfect dental student, and within a month I had withdrawn from my place at dental school to re-apply for biology. I have never regretted the decision since.
At the time of writing this blog, almost a year later, I am back at the Babraham Institute with Simon Rudge to carry out a lab placement during my gap year, ahead of an offer to study natural sciences at Cambridge. Whilst not the only reason for changing my mind, it is clear that without the Nuffield placement I wouldn’t have nearly as much confidence in the career path that I have now chosen.
It is for this reason that I will always be grateful to the Babraham Institute and for the Nuffield placement scheme and would recommend it to all A-level students interested in STEM subjects. Not everyone will end up having their life so changed by a lab placement, but it will certainly give a great taste of what research is like and become an experience just as valuable.