How I got myself into a 2-month lab research project and how I finished it still loving pipetting…
Written by: Maria Prange-Barczyńska
Since I first cut through a chicken’s heart early in secondary school, I was more or less set on what I wanted to do in life, and that was to investigate how the human body works. While this might sound like the convincing opening of a personal statement, it’s not exactly true. I did consider a career as a movie director before I ended up as a Pharmacology student at UCL. Nevertheless, since writing about gene editing and neuroplasticity in my university application, like many others, I’ve been dreaming of an academic career in scientific research. To achieve this goal, you must excel in your undergraduate studies, get lab experience, complete a PhD and then spend your lifetime building up your lab experience further. Simple, right? So, that knowledge was what motivated me to spend two months of my summer holiday mixing solutions in tubes and scanning them with high-tech instruments instead of ‘catching up on my Netflix wish list’. And it was definitely the right choice.
When, as a science student, you have friends studying economics, you need a lot of patience to explain to them why academia hardly ever follows the laws of supply and demand and resource management. Why spend two months doing a job that’s not yours to do and get paid three times less than the person who’s supposed to do it? Especially when you must spend three months sweating over the application? Well you’d better figure out a couple of good answers to these questions if you’re to keep yourself motivated throughout the process. To be successful, you’ll have to apply to multiple places, and even though all applications may look the same, it’s crucial to personalize them and adapt to the requirements and profiles of individual institutions. There you have it, your Christmas break is all about researching, writing and editing.
For most programmes I chose, the process consisted of sending a transcript, some personal information and a motivation letter detailing why you need the summer lab experience and why you’ll excel at it, before a deadline, usually in January or February. The Crick-Calleva summer student programme was the only one with an additional step of interviews, which took place in May. Personally, I found the interview much more relaxing than expected; although quite tedious, it was a nice day in an exciting scientific environment, which gave me an opportunity to learn more about the projects I applied for and to talk to people who understand my interests and scientific passion. Only two days later, I was thrilled to receive an offer and started filling out joining documents.
The two months at the Crick were my first experience of a ‘9 to 5’ job (although, actually, more like 9.30 to 7), and I was really happy with this schedule, which allows you to actually distinguish between work time and free time, rather than being constantly haunted by ‘haven’t I forgotten about a deadline for that assignment…?’. I was working with a postdoc and didn’t have much interaction with the principal investigator of the group, which meant the atmosphere was very relaxed and my supervisor was at the bench beside me, so I could always ask for advice when I needed to. The project complemented my supervisor’s work, but it was a defined project; I wasn’t just running the experiments for someone else’s paper. I studied the role of two ubiquitin ligases, NEDD4 and NEDD4L, in the negative regulation of Wnt/β-catenin signalling in colorectal cancer (CRC). Wnt is responsible for cell growth, proliferation and stem cell regeneration and the pathway is one of the most commonly deregulated in CRC . Ubiquitin ligases are enzymes marking proteins for proteasomal degradation, accounting for one of the ways of negatively regulating signalling activity. One of the components of the Wnt/β-catenin pathway, Dishevelled, has been recently shown to be ubiquitinated by NEDD4L . The project introduced me to some new techniques: for example organoid culture and plasmid cloning, while some experiments used techniques I already knew, which meant I could be quite independent in terms of planning my work and carrying out the subsequent steps. Although I didn’t participate much in experimental design, I felt responsible for my work and I got to present the results at a student symposium at the end of the program.
As a result of the two months’ work, I have experienced A LOT of failures. Western blotting is a really mean technique and my clones weren’t perfect right from the beginning either, which sometimes resulted in hopelessly carrying out the same task over and over. Still, the positive spirit of other people in the lab, spending time together with the everyday morning coffee and during lunch, made this summer really enjoyable and meant I was eager to come and continue my work despite the obstacles. Another aspect that made this work really interesting was the opportunity to attend talks by researchers from the Crick and beyond. I learnt a lot of new things about cancer biology, novel therapies and research approaches. Finally, apart from being an exciting and interesting experience in itself, the summer internship also provided me with a solid recommendation letter and something to write about in my PhD application. Oh, and I still got to go on a sailing holiday in September.