Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Complex Cooking: My Experience as a Summer Student at SITraN

As a second year Biomedical Science (Neuroscience) Student I wanted to gain an insight into PhD life. I have always loved science and my main interest lies with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Motor Neurone Disease (MND), Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. So where better to spend my summer than at SITraN!   

During my time here I teamed up with Jodie Stephenson, a second year PhD student who showed me the ropes so that I was able to work independently on my project. The aim of my project was to use immunohistochemical staining to investigate whether a TDP-43 Q331K mouse model of MND has signs of TDP-43 mislocalisation in the spinal cord (a key feature in many MND patients), at the six month stage.

My first few weeks involved a lot of observation and whenever I could I would get some hands-on experience of new techniques such as isolation of mitochondria from mouse brain, spinal cord and muscle.
It became apparent very quickly that working in a lab is very much like cooking, the protocol is your recipe and you have to use specific concentrations of your ingredients so that you’re left with a final product that you are satisfied with. Much like cooking, being in the lab involves experimentation with your ingredients, which for me was the optimization of various antibodies until I was happy with the spinal cord staining that was produced. My protocol involved the use of antigen retrieval, a technique that unravels the proteins in the spinal cord sections on my slides so that the antigen (what the antibody binds to) is unmasked, meaning that the antibody binds more successfully. This technique involved placing my slides in a pressure cooker, so at times I was literally cooking my samples!

One of the highlights of my time here at SITraN was having the opportunity to get involved with ‘Soak a Scientist’, a revival of the Ice Bucket Challenge, where we spent the day getting drenched whilst donning lab coats in order to raise funds and awareness for MND research. 
I also acted as a tour guide on the SITraN open day, where I was able to meet both patients and their families. It was clear that the motivation for research here at SITraN is the patients. The progression of knowledge through research is essential in order to generate new treatments that could potentially make a huge difference to the lives of the patients and their families, and the open day made this apparent.  

If I were to give one piece of advice to anyone who is planning to take on a summer placement, it would be to get involved with anything and everything that you can! My mantra was to say ‘yes’ to whatever I could! Learn as many new techniques as you can and ask any questions that you have whether you think they’re trivial or not. I think that it’s also important to dive into the social side of lab work by participating in activities such as cake Friday, open days or anything that is thrown your way. A summer placement is a time to learn as much as you can and make as many new professional connections as possible!

Even though I have spent the majority of my summer on placement, it doesn’t feel as though I’ve lost my summer as I have made the most of my time here and I have met some great people along the way. I have gained confidence in the lab, which will be essential when completing my practical module next year. I’m very grateful to Jodie and Rich for giving up their time so that I could gain this experience, as it has been extremely valuable. 

After seven weeks I’m quite sad to leave the team here at SITraN and not just because of the obscene amount of baked goods that have been consumed in the process! I might still be unsure as to where my degree will take me, but one thing that is certain is that the work and dedication involved in completing a PhD certainly isn’t a piece of cake! 

By Lauren Nuttall

Lauren is a second year Biomedical Science student at the University of Sheffield, who is completing a summer placement here at SITraN before specializing in Neuroscience in her final year.

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