Summer research placement chat

Hello my fellow nerds (my sisters suggestion, not mine). Hope you are all having a fantastic summer. For 8 weeks this summer I carried out a research placement at the University of Nottingham. Summer research placements usually last from 6-12 weeks and are usually carried about between second year and final year. I thought it might be helpful/interesting to talk about how I got this placement and how I found doing it.

Why did I want to do a placement?

In my course we talk a lot about research going on in plant science and it all sounded pretty cool. I’ve heard lots of lecturers talk about their career in research and I keep thinking it sounds like something I might want to do with my future. I thought doing a placement in the summer would be a good way of trying out research to see if I like it.

How did I get a placement?

So first of all I found a potential supervisor. I’m interested in a lot of topics in plant science at the moment, but what I knew I wanted a placement in the lab studying molecular plant biology. One of the lectures I found really interesting in first year was about self-incompatibility in flowering plants (I will make sure to do a blog of this later). I decided to contact this lecturer and asked about the possibility of a summer placement in their lab.

If you want to try other universities out (for further study or otherwise) this is a great opportunity, I didn’t take it, but it’s a really good idea. But equally, if there’s lots of research at the university you are currently at, don’t feel like you have to go somewhere else. On the rare occasion a funding body (the only one I’m aware of doing this is The Gatsby Charitable Foundation) requires you to complete your placement at another institution.

I decided to apply for funding for the placement, this would cover living costs and a fair amount extra (woo!). There are quite a few sources of funding for summer projects, look here if you are interested in the biosciences. Funding is usually from subject societies (for example the Genetics Society). Be aware that sometimes you or your supervisor need to have membership in the society before you can apply for funding from that society.

I was lucky enough to receive funding in the form of a BBSRC* Research Experience Placement. BBSRC REP funding is given to universities that offer Doctoral Training Partnerships and to receive this funding you apply directly to the university and not to the council (different to how it can be with most funding applications). This offers funding to the laboratory for research costs and money to you for living costs.

*Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

How was the placement experience?

So now I’m done with the boring (but hopefully useful) bit. I found doing the project super exciting although a bit daunting at first. I didn’t even know where I was going in the lab and everyone else knew exactly what they were doing (well, they at least looked like they did). I just thought “I am NEVER going to be able to do all this”. Luckily, I had the nicest supervisor in the lab – she was a great teacher and made me feel at ease. In two weeks I was doing quite a lot independently. And everything I was doing was actually working.

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Subtly (awkwardly) trying to take a selfie in the lab without people seeing

This stopped soon enough. I was doing PCRs and I came to one set of samples and it just wouldn’t work, I tried 4 times before it worked. It was all down to my technique, I found it quite difficult to deal with getting things wrong (lots of times) but I learnt that this happens all the time in science (especially when doing a PhD) and by the end I learnt how to cope with things not going perfectly. And in the end I could do a PCR with my eyes closed (well not quite, but you get the gist).

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PCR, my enemy, my ally                 *please read to the tune of pillowtalk*

I really enjoyed being in the lab. I admit, it can be quite repetitive (edit: SUPER repetitive) but I loved following the instructions and feeling like I’ve achieved something (quite the opposite to revising). I also liked that I felt like I was actually contributing to the research that my supervisor was doing.

My project involved some glasshouse work, which meant being with actual plants (yay!), I was carrying out pollinations (of various sorts) on several lines of petunias. I really enjoyed this, it was something different to being in the lab, although there were definitely bad points: working in the glasshouse in the heatwave and when there were bug infestations. I liked the glasshouse, but this project was great because I had the chance to do both glasshouse work and lab work.

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Petunia baes

Overall, I really really (Sorry Mrs Foxall/mother) enjoyed this placement and found it super useful. It was definitely difficult at times (not knowing what I was doing and things going wrong) but I learnt so much and research seems pretty cool to me.

Advice for students wishing to carry out a summer research placement:

  • If you fancy getting funded try to apply to more than one funding body (unlike me), it means you have a better chance of getting paid
  • If you want to be funded then most of the time your summer project has to be completely separate from your final year undergraduate project.
  • Pick a supervisor you get on well with. Also check how many PhD students/post docs etc there will be in the lab, they are more likely to be the people actually helping you in the lab day-to-day, not your supervisor.
  • Ask your academic tutor for help finding a placement. They may be aware of supervisors at other universities you may get on with or other funding opportunities. It was my tutor that told me about the BBSRC REP funding.
  • Think about whether you want to do a project in the lab, glasshouse, in the field or in an office. Take this into consideration when choosing a project/supervisor, and if you want to work in more than one of these areas – do it!
  • Enjoy it!

Thanks to my supervisor and my lab supervisor for being so helpful (and all the people who helped me in the lab), and the BBSRC for giving me dolla.

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