My Babraham placement: the fuel for an exciting scientific career

My Babraham placement: the fuel for an exciting scientific career

My Babraham placement: the fuel for an exciting scientific career

When I was in the final year of my BSc Medical Genetics course at Swansea University (Wales, UK), on a typical day with long hours sitting in front of my laptop catching up with online learning and lectures, I reached out to Dr Stefan Schoenfelder to initially ask about a PhD project in his lab.

Although that didn’t work out, as I wasn’t eligible for the PhD funding as an international student, I decided to ask if Dr Schoenfelder was happy to take me on-board for a research placement. I was very keen to expand my knowledge and research skillset. Not only that, but I also was eagerly seeking a mentor who would guide me to navigate my future career direction.

Babraham Hall
My arrival at the beautiful Babraham campus

So, the idea of doing a placement really began with that one sentence at the end of my email asking about the possibility and receiving an unexpectedly supportive response from Stefan!

In June 2021, only three weeks after I sat the very last exam of my BSc course, I joined the Schoenfelder Lab at the Babraham Institute for a six-month research placement.

As a new graduate with a mind full of questions, I wasn’t ready for my learning quest to end simply by finishing my degree. This mindset motivated me to start my project at the Institute before my graduation ceremony, which due to the pandemic was held virtually in late July 2021.

On my first day in the lab, apart from a set of four pipettes, there was also a small box on my bench that I realised was my arrival gift. It was perhaps among the most useful gifts I had ever received. It was a PCR magnet, which for the next six months I ended up using nearly every day to create hundreds of genomic libraries.

There was another side to this relatively empty bench; I realised that planning, identifying and ordering all of the items and reagents needed for my project was a part of my training! Having always been fascinated by management responsibilities, I knew this would be an excellent opportunity for me to develop valuable project management and planning skills.

PCR magnet
My arrival gift: a PCR magnet

Throughout the whole process, Stefan was always there to support and guide me whenever I needed help. Within a few weeks, my bench and its shelves started to fill up with all I needed to get started with my experiments.

A closer look at my project…

Human pluripotent stem cells have a superpower: they can turn into any cell type that you can think of within the human body.

For my project, I was exploring the molecular switches (so called ‘epigenetic histone marks’) that control the tendency of pluripotent stem cells for turning into specific cell types. The technique I was using for studying these epigenetic marks was called CUT&Tag sequencing; a relatively new technique introduced for the first time in 2019 which provides efficient high-resolution sequencing libraries.

During the first few weeks, while waiting for the reagents to arrive, I learned and practised growing and culturing pluripotent stem cells. I was feeding and maintaining my cells every day making sure they looked happy and healthy. Looking after these stem cells required a high level of commitment and patience, in fact in many ways I found it similar to having a pet!

As a second step, I began optimizing CUT&Tag sequencing. Setting up a new protocol is like solving a Rubik’s Cube; it takes a lot of patience, repetitions, thinking and troubleshooting. This probably was the most challenging yet rewarding phase of my placement, which taught me an important lesson:

Failure is part of the process and resilience is the key to success.

Throughout my project – from the initial protocol optimisations to generating data towards the end of my project – I had the expert support and guidance of our lab members and amazing collaborators (Guenesdogan Lab, University of Göttingen, Germany).

Human embryonic stem cells in culture
Human induced pluripotent stem cells in culture

Once the CUT&Tag protocol was up and running, I used it to generate over 130 genomic libraries containing information of where those epigenetic marks were located in the genome of the stem cells.

Beyond the lab…

Outside of my project, I had unique opportunities to provide practical training for other lab members and collaborators. Being able to organise and run a two-day practical training workshop towards the end of my placement was one of the proudest achievements during my time at the Babraham Institute –  for me this was a proof of how far I had come from starting from scratch five months before.

Being a part of the Babraham Institute’s community was an incredible networking opportunity. I attended the Lab Talks event where the Institute’s world-leading research scientists and students shared their latest findings, which I found very inspiring. Being able to take part in a variety of bioinformatics and data analysis courses, all delivered by the experts in the field at the Institute, was yet another reason why I really enjoyed my time at the Institute.

I had so much fun doing this placement. It was an eye-opening experience that gave me a real taste of what a career as a scientist would be like with all its challenges and rewards.

I learned that being flexible and open to the idea of change as a science project evolves is what distinguishes success from failure.

Pursuing research as a career could be a test of perseverance at times, where having a great mentor could make the biggest difference. Stefan has not only been a supportive supervisor, but he has also been an excellent mentor of mine who has always been generous with his time, attention and guidance.

My very positive experience with my placement has fuelled my passion for science and the expertise I gained during my time at the Babraham Institute has significantly helped my career progression. Since January 2022, I have joined the Soranzo Lab at Wellcome Sanger Institute as a Research Assistant. Here, we are exploring how changes in the genetic code of the immune cells are linked to a variety of diseases.

I am excited about this journey and what is yet to come.

I hope this post inspires all the young scientists – especially those who have shown wonderful resilience studying and graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic – to follow their passion for science and never give up.