Zoology international student at University of Leeds

Gabrielle Polkes

Gabrielle is an international student from the USA studying BSc Zoology.

Why did you choose the University of Leeds?

After starting a Zoology BS in the states, I was surprised at the lack of actual Zoology courses I was taking. After taking a few years off to complete my Veterinary Technology AAS, I decided to go back and finish my Bachelor's degree. Knowing the disappointment in courses I experienced the first time around, I expanded my search to the UK. After narrowing it down to four programs, I visited all of the schools. Between the courses offered here at Leeds – full of applicable zoological knowledge with hands on learning – and how comfortable I felt on campus and its proximity to downtown, it just felt like the right choice to me. And I haven't regretted it since!

Field courses to Dale Fort, Pembrokshire

Prior to the start of the year, all Zoology students attended a week-long field course at the Dale Fort Research Station off the coast of Wales. Here, we spent time with different professors focusing on various biological aspects of our surroundings – from the developmental stages of sea squirts to identifying sand flies to observing the difference in biodiversity found from one tide pool to the next. With each of these, we completed short, guided research projects. However, at the end of the week, we worked with one advisor and completed a more in-depth project that we helped design. My group went out on a boat and collected water samples from different shallow and deepwater areas. When we were back in the lab, using the microscope and guidebooks, we identified and counted the different species of plankton present.

By comparing the species’ abundances at varying water depths and distances to shore, we could propose reasons to limit recreational boat usage or suggest further research based on the differences we found. Although we did have some challenges, it was a great experience in teamwork and important practice in writing research papers; a vital skill in the months to come and in industry. It also allowed us to have more personal discussions with our professors, and I remember simply sitting and chatting with all of them over the course of the week. This was not something that I ever expected to happen, but greatly appreciated, and it even helped me pick an advisor for my dissertation in third year. In addition, the location not only offered scenic views and sunsets but felt much more “real world” than just classroom learning – we were at a real research station working and eating alongside professionals as they would be on a daily basis. The experience was one of the highlights of my time at the University of Leeds and is something I will remember and take away many lessons from for the future.     

What have been the highlights of your time at the University of Leeds?

Academically, the courses have been interesting so far, but by far the best one was the Marine Biology Field course to Wales right before the semester started. It was a jam-packed week full of work and research, but was a real immersive experience that got us hands on with trawling for plankton, inseminating sea cucumbers, and identifying and pinning sand flies. Outside of classes, I love the restaurant variety downtown, and although I do not get out too much, joining Food Society has given me the opportunity to experience a variety of restaurants I would not have known about otherwise; I have enjoyed it so much that I am going to be on committee next year.

How have the facilities (libraries/labs etc.) helped you get the most out of your degree?

I personally do not spend a lot of time in the libraries, as I find I work better in my room, but they have great facilities for meeting for group projects, from booths to rooms, that can be booked with full computer available. The few times I have gone in there, it has been easy to locate what I am looking for, and the link through the LeedsUni App make it even faster to find books. Being an international student, I try to cut down on buying bulky items and so the printing facilities come in very handy, and I can stop by just a few minutes before class to print out any hand-in items.

As a student in the Faculty of Biological Studies, the labs play a large role in my education. Almost every week I am in either computer clusters running statistical analyses on data, or in the labs doing anything from observing C. elegans and malaria under the microscope to even dissecting a chicken. I have always found the hands-on work makes the material come to life, so I always look forward to these opportunities.

What key aspects of your experience of Leeds would you highlight to students thinking about coming do the same course?

I think by far the biggest highlight, as mentioned above, was the Marine Biology Field Course in Wales. It felt a bit more real world, living on this tiny research station and working as we would if we were in industry. It is easy to get caught up in classes and not look at the bigger picture, and this was a great experience to help remind me what I am doing this all for. I have also found the professors extremely helpful and most of very passionate about what they do and will happily talk about their research topics for hours. It makes it a better place to be, when you are surrounded by people with the same passions as you.

What are your ambitions for the future? Do you have specific career plans? Has the Faculty (careers centre/lecturers etc.) helped you with these goals in any way?

I do have a specific career goal, which is to work with endangered species as a veterinary technician, be it at a zoo or other conservation facility. I know this is pretty niche and it sounds like I have it all figured out, but it has taken me quite a few years and experiences to know that this is what I enjoy doing and am passionate about. Even though I know what I want to do, I am taking the Employment for Life Scientists module this semester, and it is teaching me useful tips about interviewing and networking; also my personal tutor has made suggestions to help me reach this goal.