MSci student placement experience: Pirbright Institute

MSci student placement experience: Pirbright Institute
2023-10-20

As part of my MSci Biotechnology degree, I completed a placement year at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey. This was a fantastic experience and I would encourage anyone interested in a science career to apply for similar opportunities. It is absolutely commendable that The Pirbright Institute offers these placements to undergraduates, and I laud the great efforts of the faculty of the University of Aberdeen in helping us prepare for and benefit from these opportunities.  

By starting my own project at Pirbright, I have been better able to place the previous years of university courses and study in context. During my placement, some things did not go as planned and experiments had results that neither I nor my supervisors expected. This is largely par for the course, especially for young researchers like myself, but also for more experienced staff members. In order to overcome these challenges, I felt I had to apply the techniques and skills I had learnt in my courses to something that mattered, and that could make a small contribution to the great lumbering beast that is academia.

My project focused on how developmental hormones in arthropods affect Rift Valley fever virus, one of the World Health Organization's priority pathogens that affects some of the world’s most destitute populations. My experience was something along the lines of this: I spent the first months reading codes of practice and performing a literature review, as well as learning how to maintain cell lines and perform various treatments. I then slowly started to learn molecular techniques such as RNA -extractions, RT-qPCR, etc. I also observed some high containment infectious work and went through several inductions so that I could also work under high containment. Following this, we carried out mRNA-sequencing transcriptomic analyses on some of our samples, which helped us understand what was going on at a gene-expression level. To do this, I had to learn quite a bit about bioinformatics, as well as how to interpret the data. Finally, I also learned the basics of how to rear and maintain mosquito colonies.

During my time at Pirbright, I helped my supervisors write the initial draft for a paper, as well as helping them with some of the lab work. Our paper was published here. I learnt a lot about the peer-review process and the standard and rigour that is expected to get a paper published in a good journal. It was certainly stressful for all of us, but I believe we are all proud of the result, and I consider my contribution my greatest academic accomplishment to date. I also presented my own project as a poster at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference 2023 in Birmingham, where I attended various talks related to virology. This exposed me to a lot of interesting research by individuals who, perhaps, I would otherwise not have had the privilege to meet. Finally, I gave a talk to a cohort of London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine master’s students about my project, which allowed me to present to a previously unknown audience who, largely, did not have the same background or experience that I did. This was also challenging, and ensuring that the talk was approachable while also, hopefully, interesting, did take some time and practice to get right.

I also developed my professional skills by attending bi-weekly lab meetings and more frequent one-on-one meetings with my supervisors, where we discussed ideas and how to move forward. This served to improve my teamworking skills. I also attended various other strategic meetings and was involved in negotiating quotations for products and services, which, alongside the inventory and lab-management responsibilities I had, improved my resourcefulness and logistical skills.

Overall, I believe that this placement year has been an exceptionally transformative and influential experience which has made me far more confident as a professional and as a scientist. I feel like I am better prepared for a career in science and aware of the challenges and opportunities that can arise as part of future projects. I would encourage anyone on the fence about doing a placement to do one – I wholeheartedly believe the experiences you gain from this year will do a lot to prepare you for a career in science. Good luck!

Published by The School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, University of Aberdeen

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