Read about students' experiences
Undergraduate lab placements - making the most of research opportunities
Thinking of applying for a summer lab placement? There are a huge number of opportunities available to Biochemistry students, in Oxford, the UK and abroad, and a large pool of potential funders. Placements may be part of a formal programme which offers scientific and social activities in addition to the research component, or simply a period in a lab. Funding generally provides accommodation and living expenses as well as consumables for the lab, and is available from charities, professional organisations, research councils, industry or the Department.Funding for placements in 2015 is available from the department (for up to seven students) and also from other sources including the Wellcome Trust and several professional bodies. In addition, a wide range of research institutes in the UK and abroad offer formal summer student programmes with deadlines ranging from January through to March. For more details about all of these, see the departmental website
(http://www.bioch.ox.ac.uk/research/studentships) and the Careers Service website (http://www.careers.ox.ac.uk/internship-office-and-work-experience/the- internship-programme/). You can also find the departmental information via WebLearn at https://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/portal/hierarchy/medsci/bioch/ug.
In 2014, over 20 students at the end of their first, second or third years participated in a range of placements at universities in the UK and abroad. The majority secured some funding, from the department or elsewhere. You can read about the experiences of some of the students below.
Second year Biochemistry student at St John's. Cristiana spent 8 weeks in Jason Schnell's lab in the Department of Biochemistry.
I wanted to do a project that would be useful to help explain the techniques I was likely to come across in my course, so I chose an internship with Jason.
The overall aim of the project was to analyse interactions between chaperone BIP and the membrane receptor S1R. My specific role was to integrate S1R into lipid nanodiscs - the first step in the project. It was quite a time-consuming task but I ended up getting some good results.
The project gave me a good grasp of membrane protein purification and HPLC, and I also carried out some SPR (surface plasmon resonance). My supervisor let me analyse what lipids worked better in the nanodiscs using FRET and also showed me some NMR. I've found it very useful as we are now covering NMR in our lectures and it has helped me understand this.
I approached Jason because I had read about his work and found it interesting. I contacted him and he accepted me. When I was there, I interacted with postdocs and others in the lab. I had to keep up with reading and participating in the weekly journal club, and presented my own work towards the end of the project.
I really enjoyed working there - I'd say it was the best experience of my first year. I hadn't done any research before but I want to do more placements if I can. This year I wasn't eligible for most of the funding on offer (which is for second or third years), but I did receive some support from my college which helped with the costs.
I would definitely recommend first year students considering a placement. It has helped me understand the concepts that are now being presented to us in second year lectures and classes.
Third year Biochemistry student at St Hilda's. Andrei spent two months in the lab of Petros Ligoxygakis in the Department of Biochemistry.
I started by contacting some tutors and lecturers to ask about the possibility of doing a placement in their lab. I was interested in pharmacology research or working with model organisms. Petros accepted me and I was successful in securing departmental funding (which is for second year students).
I worked on an RNAi knockdown system in Drosophila. We wanted to see whether an interaction that had been previously observed was due to an off-target effect or was a real physiological effect. I found that it was an off-target effect but my results were very different from Petros'. We thought that the explanation might be that the Drosophila larvae were showing over-crowding - something that should be taken into consideration in the RNAi screens that Petros has been carrying out. So the finding has informed Petros' research and we may be able to publish it.
I really enjoyed the project. For the first few weeks I had to expand fly stocks so I learnt how to look after flies. Then I made crosses and checked these using RT-PCR, and used microscopy to check phenotypic traits in progeny. I also carried out some infections - Petros' interest is the pathways involved in immune responses.
The work has helped me to understand concepts of genetic manipulation and has been especially useful for helping me tackle data handling questions we are given.
I would like to do more research in future years. I'm considering a placement in industry next year to see what a more applied environment, with different drivers, will be like.
Doing a placement is a very useful experience - both for you as a potential future researcher and to help with your course. I've found that people in the department have been helpful so I would say that you shouldn't be afraid of approaching group leaders, expressing an interest in their work, and finding out if they would be willing to offer you a placement.
Jennifer (Wanyi) Jia
Visiting student from Pomona College, California. Jennifer spent 9 weeks on a programme at the LA Biomedical Research Institute (LABiomed) in the Ibrahim lab, combining research with exposure to hospital medicine.
I was a research intern in the Infectious Diseases Department of the LA Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor UCLA, which is geared towards students interested in medicine and medical research. The work in the lab was quite clinically orientated and I took part in medical rounds with doctors. I joined residents and infectious diseases fellows on the discussion of patient cases and ward rounds. The programme included a variety of research projects and I was offered a choice upon my arrival.
In the Ibrahim lab, I worked on the development of a vaccine and effective diagnosis for mucormycosis, an infection commonly caused by the Rhizopus orizae fungus. Patients who are immuno-compromised such as those with HIV, leukaemia and diabetic ketoacidosis are especially susceptible to the infection, which can often be fatal. To characterise monoclonal, antibody-producing hybridoma cell lines, I conducted a range of experiments such as optimising cell growth conditions, purifying and testing antibodies via ELISA, FACS analysis/flow cytometry and THP-1/spore killing assays, and inducing neutropenia in mice. My work was part of the long-term goal of the lab to identify which antibody was the best against the fungus, scale up its production, and take it into clinical trials. I successfully identified which antibodies were most effective at binding CotH3-a crucial R. orizae surface protein-and initiated mass purification.
I have had a lot of experience working in basic research settings. My degree at Pomona College has involved several periods of research during the year. In addition, I interned in an 8-week summer project in a protein crystallography lab at Penn State University and worked for two other summer internships at my home institution on the evolutionary origins of adaptive immunology and Drosophila axon guidance mechanism. Currently, I am at Oxford as a third-year visiting student, combining courses in Biochemistry and Neuroscience with neurogenetic crystallography research in a STRUBI lab. Because my home institution overseas is an undergraduate-focused liberal arts college, I would not have had the opportunity to undertake a project involving such advanced and high-technology facilities.
I think the LABiomed programme can be a very helpful experience-not only for students going into medicine, but also for those who are interested in more clinically-oriented research.
Overall, I would recommend students going to other countries for internships. In fact, they shouldn't be afraid to look for labs they are interested in and contacting the lab PI. I was looking for cancer-related research online when I found out about the opportunity at LABiomed. The funding came with the research application acceptance, which more than adequately covered living expenses, and would probably also cover travel costs for those who need it. I applied mid-January/beginning of February- but note that the deadlines for US programmes can be as early as December, running through to March.
As for my future plans, I would like to go to medical school and pursue an MD or MD/PhD in the US or here at Oxford University.
Fourth year student at Somerville College currently working the lab of Nicole Zitzmann for her Part II project. Alice had a placement at Diamond Light Source (DLS) in 2013 and in the lab of Ilan Davis in the Department of Biochemistry in 2014.
I worked at DLS for 10 weeks on their summer studentship programme. I mainly carried out protein purification and worked with physicists. The facilities there were excellent. As part of the programme, we attended special talks and also social events, and it was good to meet the other students who were from all over.
I really enjoyed the experience and found it very valuable. It gave me a good understanding of basic molecular biology and helped me to understand work for my Collections as well as the practicals I carried out that year. The programme was generously funded and I took advantage of cheap accommodation at my college. I even had 5 days of holiday included in the 10 weeks.
I hadn't done any research before this placement and it made me decide that I would like to stay in research after my degree. I am still in contact with my supervisor at DLS who has offered me the opportunity to collaborate on some work.
This summer, I worked in Ilan Davis' lab for 11 weeks. I was originally going to be funded by the department, but on the first day I started work, I found out that I had Lister Institute funding. This was arranged through Ilan and my supervisor.
In this developmental biology project, I was looking after fruitflies – growing and dissecting them, and using fluorescent microscopy to study their neuromuscular junctions. It was very different from my placement at DLS and helped me decide where the focus of my future research should be. There were fewer students to meet – just one other in the lab when I was there.
It was useful to learn microscopy techniques and also be exposed at lab meetings to how research is presented. I presented at one of these and received some useful feedback.
I am now doing my Part II project in Nicole Zitzmann's lab. I tried to get a placement in her lab in the summer but couldn't. I looked for supervisors in several other labs in Oxford but in the end, the placement in Ilan's lab came through before the others. My enjoyment of doing research has made me decide that I would like to do a PhD, perhaps in the field of immunology with a structural biology focus.
I would advise any student considering a placement to go for the organised programmes like the one at DLS unless you know exactly what research you'd like to do. These schemes are good - you meet other students and, at DLS, mix with a range of people and come into contact with more applied research. Certainly if you have even a vague interest in doing research after your degree, getting research experience is a very good idea. Look out for Gill's emails about opportunities and be aware of the deadlines. Although the one for DLS is fairly late, some are earlier in the year.