21 July, 2022
I am a first-year PhD student in the Department of Signalling, working in the Florey Laboratory trying to work out the role that CASM (Conjugation of ATG8 to Single Membranes) plays in the endolysosomal damage response. I think it is the best job in the world and there genuinely is nothing I would rather do. I am able to recognise every day I come into the lab how lucky I am to be where I am. Everyone has the one thing they are most passionate about and everyone should be able to pursue this passion without barriers blocking the way.
I am from a small town on the Suffolk coast called Lowestoft. It is the UK's most Easterly town and has the UK's tallest wind-turbine! I am incredibly proud to call it my hometown; we are the southern gateway to the beautiful Broads National Park, have a beautiful beach, and a long history as a significant fishing port. However, on the whole, it is one of the most deprived areas in the UK. According to the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) (UK Government, 2019), many parts of Lowestoft are in the highest 10% for deprivation across the country, and fare even worse when it comes to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI). In the education system, and I experienced this directly, this places direct barriers in the way of further education and upwards academic mobility.
When I was at secondary school (Benjamin Britten), the concept of university and further education was completely alien to me. Further education was very rarely, if ever, mentioned – and I would not have been able to tell you what a PhD was! Certainly, the concept of going to a highly selective university like Cambridge was not something that had crossed my mind. My parents were, and still are, incredibly supportive and always provided me with everything I needed to be happy and successful, but as a first-generation academic I have had to navigate my own way through the further education system. I could have so easily fallen through the net and not ended up where I am today.
The Brilliant Club is a charity whose aim is to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds who apply and successfully gain entry to highly selective universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. They do this by recruiting PhD and Postgraduate researchers across all academic disciplines, who then design their own university-style courses based on their research and then deliver these in schools. This is called their Scholars Programme, and it targets all secondary school children from Year 7 to Year 11. The programme starts with a launch event at a Russell Group university, and culminates in a final assignment and graduation event at another Russell Group university.
I first became aware of the work The Brilliant Club do via Twitter, and saw that they were recruiting. This was just before the start of my PhD, and I was wary about taking on extra responsibilities. However, I was able to see the parallels between myself when I was at secondary school, and the pupils that I would be helping as a tutor. I would have absolutely loved the opportunity to learn more about university and experience university-style learning. I wanted to help people in the same position I was all those years ago. I successfully entered the programme and was placed at my first school in February 2022.
I was placed at Neale-Wade Academy in March, Cambridgeshire, and I had a group of 11 Year 9 pupils. I worked with the lead teacher, Angela Harriman, who is an inspirational teacher and whose passion for broadening pupils’ horizons and boosting their belief shone through throughout the process. We definitely need more teachers like her! The pupils were carefully chosen for the programme, and came from diverse backgrounds. 100% of the group were Pupil Premium students, 4 out of 11 had no parental history of further education, and 75% were living in the 40% most deprived areas according to the IDACI.
As the process went on and I delivered the tutorials, what was clear was that the students' initial lack of belief was completely unfounded. They were all absolutely brilliant to work with, incredibly bright, and fantastic young scientists with so much potential. What they were learning was really complex biology (the molecular pathogenesis of Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia), that was at an undergraduate level. Yet they blew me away with how quickly they understood it and how beautifully they explained it back to me.
When I marked their final assignments, I was incredibly proud. The quality of work they had produced was unbelievable, and would not have looked out of place from an undergraduate student. The morning I came into the school and gave them their individual feedback was something I will always remember. The joy when I told them how well they had done was amazing, but what impacted me the most was how shocked they were. It really drove home how, perhaps because of their backgrounds, they had never considered just how capable they were. I could see just how important programmes like this were, and how they really do broaden pupils’ horizons and show pupils that not only are highly-selective universities a real possibility, but they deserve to be there.
Excitingly, the pupils graduated at Selwyn College. With the Public Engagement (PE) team here at the Institute, a visit to the Babraham Institute was organised for the afternoon. This was the Institute's first in-person school visit since before the pandemic! The visit entailed a tour around the Institute and the beautiful grounds and core facilities, as well as the pupils taking on the brilliant Cell Escape room. The trip was a big success and I think it was a really good experience for the pupils to see what a proper research lab looks like. My experience of working with the PE team here was incredibly positive, and I cannot wait to get a lot more involved throughout my PhD. Watch this space!
You can see more photographs from the Neale-Wade visit to the Institute in our event gallery.
21 July 2022
By Jake Cross