Second year and arranging your own research projects: how volunteering can help.

Scientists By Patricia Matos, MRes Maternal & Fetal Health student

Are you lucky enough to have a particular interest in your discipline and want to take the reins of your degree? Then why not arrange your own final year research project!

I studied Physiology as an undergrad, because I am interested in how bodies work. But, I was fascinated at how a female body can produce another life. I decided to self-arrange my project in the area of Reproduction. I looked for a supervisor in the Maternal & Fetal Research Centre at St Mary’s Hospital. It was not simple; most academics were busy with postgrads and had no availability. Eventually, I found a supervisor (through recommendations) whose research topic I liked and who had the time for me. Great! At the end of second year I knew what I was doing in my final year.

Then I had an idea…I was going to spend most of the summer in Manchester, so I asked my supervisor: can I volunteer at the lab? It was the best decision ever. I familiarised myself with the staff and the facilities; I knew what was where and who did what. I learned about the topic, without the pressure of being assessed. Most importantly, I learned the techniques I was going to do in the future.

I was mentored by a research assistant, just about to start her PhD. I learned immunohistochemistry, microscopy, PCR, tissue culture, mRNA knockdown. I collected data for ongoing projects, learned how to record, interpret and present it. I had my own lab book; I attended the weekly lab meetings where other students and academics presented their work. I learned about the Human Tissue Act, since we worked with human placentas. I even took it upon me to re-write protocols; experienced people have been doing techniques for so long that protocols seem clear, however students can’t understand them. I met a clinician, who I shadowed in clinic for two days to understand the applications of research.

When it came to my literary review, it wasn’t daunting to start, after all I had spent the summer reading around it and hearing people talk about it. I was cautiously confident. When the lab work started, I didn’t spend the first two weeks getting to grips with pippeting accurately, learning how to prepare slides for staining or finding out which rubbish goes into which bin, i.e. training to be a scientist. Instead I was able to jump right into collecting data for my project. At the end, I had a first class grade for my project and it got published!

I’m not saying sacrifice your summer, you do need the holiday! But stay a couple weeks extra in Manchester and volunteer (I did it over 2 months but only 2/3 days a week). You will see how much more confident you will feel about your work just because you took control of it. And guess what? Now, I’m back at the same lab doing an MRes!



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