By Francesca Donnellan
This is, I hope, the first of many interviews with scientists from Oriel’s JCR, MCR and SCR. The aim is to both showcase the range of research conducted by fellows, graduates and undergraduates and to have a poke around what it is like to be a scientist within the university and our college.
Like Fran Moore and Jess Dark, I’m a 4th year Biochemistry student at Oriel, so I know these two very well. That might go some way to explaining why, in the aftermath of the Great British Bake Off Final 2015, I was sitting in their kitchen watching Fran hang up her laundry discussing ChIP, cafés and career plans. I’d pleaded on bended knee for them to let me record our conversation about beginning our Part II projects and they had graciously agreed – as long as we could watch Bake Off first.
The biochemistry degree includes an eighteen week project; the first time within our degrees that we are allowed into research labs to undertake our own experiments. Fran’s project involves ‘…looking at DNA turning into RNA; and why different genes use different stop sites and the effects of that in wider disease… essentially.’ Whereas Jess’ ‘…is based around certain proteins that help get your dietary protein into your body. It’s really helpful for biochemists to know the structure of these proteins, so I’m helping to stabilise them so that we can crystallize them to get their structure, which will then help indicate their function.’ My project on the other hand is a research group working on a vaccine for malaria.
Jess was looking for a project with ‘…relevance to nutrition and the human body, which is what I find most interesting, rather than plants, or biofuels, or something along those lines. So I found one that incorporated new techniques and techniques we’d used before, but in a capacity that was relevant to digesting protein in the human body, which I found interesting.’
Fran has ‘…always found genetics very interesting. And sort of working around genetics, not just pure genetics, but epigenetics or how different codes work and the things we still don’t understand.’ But it’s not all about the project itself, the people who are teaching you and working with you in the lab are extremely important in creating an atmosphere that works for you. Fran realised the importance of this when picking her project; ‘I knew the PI [principal investigator, the head of the research group], she was tutor at Oriel … and I knew I liked her, and knew I would like working with her.’
First forays into the lab
With just a couple weeks in the lab under their belts, Jess and Fran both agree that their first impressions of being in a proper research lab far outstrips that of their only previous lab experience in undergraduate practicals. ‘They were in a huge lab where all of the year goes in and does the practical all at once. Whereas this is small environment where everyone knows what everyone else is working on, but they’re not necessarily doing exactly the same thing as you…’, says Fran, who is clearly enjoying her current lab; ‘…you can bounce ideas of each other, and people get excited about what I’m doing.’
This part of our degree is more challenging, as Jess adds ‘…science is science and we may need to optimise certain techniques… or sometimes they simply won’t work and that’s the way it is. It’s not like the undergraduate practicals that have been running for 50 years, and you know how they should work.’
Continuing our chat after digressing into the relative merits of the cafés in the buildings we are each working in (a very important topic, though sadly there is not enough space to do it justice here), I steered the conversation back to the science at hand and the techniques they have been learning day-to-day. In two weeks, Jess has already accumulated a pretty decent set of skills; ‘…growing up yeast cultures, and growing up E.coli cultures, and then expressing the proteins, and running PCR (which is the Polymerase Chain Reaction, to get more DNA, or to mutate DNA to get a certain sequence that I want). And then I’ve also been using centrifuges, incubators, an awful lot of pipetting and gel electrophoresis.’ She hopes to move on to protein purification and by fusing her protein to a green fluorescent protein (GFP), she will be able to use fluorescent techniques to try and detect and analyse her protein of interest.
Meanwhile, Fran has been mainly focusing on ‘…using a technique called ChIP or Chromatin Immunoprecipitation – yeah, good, I’m glad I got that one right’. This is a three day long experiment which she is using to ‘…detect where a protein is binding to DNA.’ Early success has given Fran a taste for more; ‘One of the proteins that I have managed to ChIP is a protein that cleaves the RNA. So the RNA is being made from the DNA template and then it cleaves the RNA at a specific sequence. Someone else has previously tried to find this protein and where it binds by ChIP and they failed – and I managed to do it…. My next job is to see whether I can get that technique to still work when I’ve treated the cells with a drug that should change where that protein would bind, if it binds at all…’, as well as to try and find another crucial DNA binding protein that ‘…adds on a sequence of A’s onto the end of the RNA to signal to the protein making machinery to stop’.
As the junior lab members, there is a sense that we are in our first term of starting at big school. This feeling was particularly strong for Jess when presented with her ‘…first ever proper lab book… which really took me back to school and the first page of an exercise book.’ However, even in two weeks it is clear that we have all been sprinting up steep learning curves. Hopefully we’ll start catching up with the older kids soon.
Jess originally wanted to study medicine, but instead turned to biochemistry. ‘Firstly, I felt under a lot of pressure to decide my future life career aged sixteen, which was a very daunting prospect. So I sort of chickened out. But also, I realised that I wanted to understand more of the background of medicine. … And also, I felt that if I still wanted to do medicine, I could always do graduate medicine from biochemistry.’ Not that that is her current plan, a Masters in Nutrition with an emphasis in public health will be her next stepping stone to working ‘…in either public health, education or policy in relation to nutrition in the UK.’ She thinks that the metabolism we have studied will put her in good stead, but wants to study more physiology; ‘I would really like to integrate knowledge I already have, with some new knowledge and then try and apply that to the wider community.’
Fran on the other hand challenged herself to study biochemistry partly for personal reasons; ‘During my AS-levels, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. And I was kind of reading the back of her medicine, all the chemotherapy stuff, and was trying to understand exactly why it was working… I didn’t understand a single thing’. Additionally, she recalls an inspirational A-level chemistry teacher who had previously read biochemistry. The latter was an experience and motivation I shared, although at a different school. Fran is now adamant that she will not stay in research despite that being her original intention. ‘I’m currently applying for just a few generic grad scheme type things… maybe a scientific management consultancy, but also, maybe not: maybe exploring something new.’
The long view
Hopefully we’ll pick this interview thread up again after Christmas, when we’ll have only a few weeks left of our projects. I wonder how they predict they will be feeling by then when the prospect of writing our theses is looming large on the horizon. ‘Genuinely I’m looking forward to in my own time, and under my own steam, having something to write up…’ says Jess. Fran agrees, ‘…I’m kind of looking forward to actually presenting my results… Contributing to science as a whole is really quite fun.’ The thesis has additional attraction for Fran; ‘This is something you can keep for life. You can keep it bound somewhere, it may just sit back at your parents’ house. It doesn’t necessarily need to be with you, but it’s something that someone will probably always have a copy of somewhere.’
I’m not sure whether the current optimism that Jess and Fran have for getting to grips with their theses will hold when we start having to actually put pen to paper (who am I kidding, fingers to keyboard), but even if only for eighteen weeks, we are all three of us looking forward to our own little bit of science. The challenge is to make, as Jess says, ‘…something that is original and is mine’.
To listen to our conversation and to hear more about our projects and experiences as Part II student so far – click on the link (we apologise for the background noise, Fran was genuinely baking during the recording….).