Jacob Clark, BSc Neuroscience, work placement

Jacob Clark

Jacob studied BSc Neuroscience and completed a research-based work placement at the University of Bristol, MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity. He won a place on Jennifer Rowles Research Studentship, was a member of the LUU Neuroscience society Neural Networks and has secured a place after graduation on the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Programme at UCL.

My work placement

My placement was at the University of Bristol, MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity in the lab of Professor Jeremy Henley. I worked as a student research assistant with the post-doctoral researcher Dr Ruth Carmichael on a project looking into the links between SUMOylation and Parkinson’s disease funded by Parkinson’s Research UK.

Getting a feel if PhD research is right for me

I’d spent a couple of weeks on placement in a University of Leeds lab and learning in a research environment but was unsure of whether I wanted to dedicate myself to a postgraduate career involving lab work. Going into an established research laboratory and gaining experience in a setting outside of education seemed like a great way to bolster my CV which was lacking at the time and to get a better idea of what a career in science or a PhD would look like.

Doing research day-to-day

My placement involved me going over my lab book and planning out how much I could carry out in the day. Many of the series of experiments we carried out involved cell culture and so the one constant throughout the year was looking after cells and treating them with compounds at the allocated time slots be it early morning, late night or even weekends if it was a series of treatments lasting over 5 days. Whilst I’d spend many hours a day carrying out experiments in the lab a large portion of the day was taken up by planning, analysis of data and discussion with my supervisor.

Being independent in my work

My main responsibilities were to produce reliable data and ensure progress was being made towards targets set at meetings that were had every two weeks between me, my supervisor and the principal investigator of the lab. To my surprise, I was given a large amount of responsibility in the planning and design of experiments as my supervisor carried out her own part of the project independent of my work. Whilst earlier in the placement I was supervised regularly after a couple of months I had a large amount of responsibility and independence for my own work minus discussions coming up when any issues or larger decisions needed to be made.

As well as carrying out my portion of the research I was also responsible for distributing my findings and presenting my work to my lab group in small regular internal meeting and at larger meetings between lab groups. The larger meetings every few months would involve relatively intense preparations for a presentation where an hour-long slot would be allocated to me for presenting my data as well as engaging in a discussion, dissecting the experimental design and findings I presented to a multi-lab group of academics.

Probably my largest responsibility given to me was the proper and correctly documented handling of human tissues for experimentation. Part of my work involved using human brain tissue from deceased Parkinson’s disease patients and carrying out biochemical and molecular analysis of the samples. Whilst the experimental techniques I used were straightforward the fact that the tissue was from real people who suffered from Parkinson’s added a level of importance that was reflected in the strict regulations, laws and protocols we had to follow and comply with when carrying out this research.

Meeting great people to work with

The biggest highlight for me personally was the research environment and the people in it. The general stereotype for scientists is typically that they aren’t the most social individuals, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The research environment that I’ve experienced in both Leeds and Bristol is one of complete social engagement actively encouraged and sought after. The research laboratory cannot function effectively without the social aspect. Having a group of people all with specific expertise happy to work with each other meant that whenever I had a problem, be it using software I’d never used, encountering a practical issue or even struggling with some concepts confusing me there would always be someone there enthusiastic to help.

My degree enhanced my placement

Whilst teaching labs give you some preparation for the research environment, the most beneficial aspects of my degree relevant to my placement were what I learnt from the many series of tutorials I’ve engaged in. My degree involves tutorial sessions which focus the very scientific skills needed to thrive in an academic lab. Presentation skills, data analysis and problem-solving were the most valuable assets I took with me and were able to hone whilst on placement. Many people are put off going into research because of the experiments they carry out in demonstrations being confusing or not working the way they were designed to (whilst there is plenty that doesn’t work in real labs) the main focus and enjoyment of research comes from the question you’re asking and the problems you face up and solve. Once you’ve carried out an experiment over a hundred times the real issues of experimental design, data analysis and interpretation become a lot more important than the practical execution.

Gave me the confidence to apply for PhD training programmes 

A few major opportunities came out of my placement directly and indirectly. A direct consequence was that Professor Jeremy Henley and the Senior Research Associate Dr Kevin Wilkinson helped me to apply for PhD funding in their lab. Whilst funding wasn’t granted it was a useful exercise in approaching funding bodies as well as learning about the process in which money is acquired for academic research.

More indirectly, this placement gave me a year worth of experience in a research environment not too dissimilar to that of a first-year PhD. With this experience, I could confidently apply to highly competitive PhD Doctoral training programmes with plenty to talk about.

My year in industry is highly relevant to my career prospects in the sense that it has prepared me for going into the first year of a PhD programme. Other than the wealth of experience that came with working alongside world class researchers, being in a laboratory allowed me discover what career I wanted for myself and essentially directed me to taking the path that I’m now on.

The careers team were there to support me

The university has an incredibly attentive group of staff on hand to help with any issues regarding your CV, interviews and how to go about the application process. Once on placement my supervisor from Leeds visited my place of work and ensured that everything was going smoothly, there were no problems and I was getting the most out of experience.

Building my confidence and independence 

The freedom, independence and personal responsibility were the most enjoyable parts of my placement. Working in a laboratory meant that I designed my own schedule and worked to my own deadlines, sometimes my schedule demanded that I needed to work weekends but equally if something came up I could restructure my week around any events or issues. The independence and personal accountability can be daunting and pretty challenging at first but ultimately it makes you much better at working and allows you to hone your organisational skills.

Accepted to London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Programme 

I’ve secured a place on the London Interdisciplinary Doctoral Programme at University College London and will be starting my first year in September 2019. From this, I will begin a career in academic research in molecular biology hopefully progressing onto a post-doctoral place once I graduate. My lecturers and personal supervisor have been an integral part of me getting to this position whether it be encouraging me to try working in a small lab placement to providing me with guidance over career decisions when a more experienced perspective is needed.

Dedicated research-led teaching

The University of Leeds has a reputation for high standards of quality teaching and when discussing the running of biomedical degrees with students from other Universities it really shows. The teaching staff show a level of dedication and care for students at Leeds that is pretty lacking elsewhere, instead of being a source of profit for the institution you’re really treated like an integral part of the University community with feedback taken seriously and changes constantly being integrated.

My placement year has been the highlight of my degree due to the fact I so thoroughly enjoy working in research. This placement wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance and mentoring provided by my personal tutor and lecturers running my course. The encouragement to do and skills to acquire my placement provided by staff on my degree were essential in leading me onto a career I’m ecstatic to begin on.

Jennifer Rowles Research Studentship

I secured a place on a Jennifer Rowles research studentship supervised by Dr Jonathon Lippiat working on voltage-gated ion channels. This was my first time in a lab and was mostly learning a lot of basic skills including how to safely work in a lab environment, how to plan and execute experimental designs effectively and how enjoyable research work can be.

Hands-on practical learning

Two of my favourite modules have been molecular neuroscience and integrative biomedical science. Molecular neuroscience allowed me to engage in a niche of the degree which has become my favourite subject and is even the focus of my future career. It has been taught in an engaging fashion with a focus on developing skills in scientific analysis as well as learning about fundamental concepts in molecular biology applied to neuroscience. Integrative biomedical science was a module focused on dissecting the importance and problems regarding animal models used in scientific research. This module is one of very few in the UK which teaches about animal models with such a hands-on approach with a large consideration for animal welfare and the state of legislation regarding animal testing.

Enjoying student life

I joined the society for neuroscience called Neural Networks, this provided me with a platform to develop my abilities in presentation skills and share my experiences in research with other year groups. In earlier years before my placement year it was an excellent society in which you can engage in discussion about science, academia and talk to people further along your degree for advice and for their opinions of things such as industrial placements.