Student Volunteering: My Experience at the Quadram

8th February 2021

Volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both personally and professionally. Gabriel Astorga is a third-year undergraduate student studying Biomedicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA). He reflects on his time volunteering at the Quadram Institute and the valuable skills he gained.

Who? Me? A scientist?

Over time and from my undergraduate Biomedicine course at UEA, I discovered that research was the path I wanted to keep exploring. In my first year, I opted to join a seminar group studying the gut microbiome. My seminar leader showed us around some labs in the research park that studied the gut microbiome, and we got to look at some experiments first-hand.

Needless to say, I loved it – the research, the laboratory environment and the opportunity to work in a scientific community. It was a whole new world that I never got to explore when I was younger. I knew that I needed to experience this for myself. So, in my second year at UEA, that’s exactly what I did.

Reaching out

I remember feeling both terrified and excited by just researching the Quadram Institute. Norwich Research Park is home to over 11,000 people, including 3000 scientists. Being a second-year undergraduate student made me feel like I wouldn’t be up to the same level as everyone else. Nevertheless, I took the plunge and started looking at some volunteering opportunities.

I knew my skill set was limited at this point, and that I wanted to work in a microbiology/microbiome-related field. I researched Group Leaders on the website and looked at their projects. There was one that really interested me – Dr Maria Traka’s group studying personalised nutrition and its effects on the gut microbiome. I sent her an email expressing my interest in volunteering and that I really wanted to learn from her group. I remember being so excited when she said she wanted to meet and discuss this opportunity further.

Nutrition is about to get personal

I volunteered three times a week for around three hours every day. This might seem like a lot, but I really wanted to learn as much as possible from the team I worked with.

I worked closely with senior researchers, nutritionists and the Food Databanks National Capability (FDNC) manager on two separate projects. The first project was about the Food Databank, where I helped manage data about different food nutritional compositions. This could be used to link diet and its effect on health. I analysed papers that looked primarily at biochemical compounds found in foods called bioactives and polyphenols. From this, I learned how to systematically compile quantitative data and how to critically analyse the numerical aspects of papers.

These skills helped with the second part of the project, where I designed different meal plans for participants to investigate the effect of bioactives on their gut microbiome. The data was compiled and sorted into a list of foods that were either high or low in these bioactive compounds. We came across a problem where the fibre was significantly different in the diets. We knew that differences in fibre can really change the microbiome composition.

This is where the discussion and teamwork came into play. After discussing the problem, we came to a solution where a third diet plan should be made. This plan involved the same number of fruit and veg but would be low in bioactive compounds. It was great to be part of a scientific team that valued discussion and collaboration to solve problems.

Why I’d recommend volunteering to students

Sadly, I only volunteered in person for a short amount of time because of COVID. However, I did get into contact with the team and started doing some more databank work during the start of my third year. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to learn from the group of scientists and researcher I worked with. They taught me a lot about working in research and that was something I could apply in future jobs.

The main reason why I volunteered was to see if this was a career I could see myself in. After this experience, I knew that I wanted to keep working as a scientist. I wanted to grow in an environment filled with other like-minded individuals in a collaborative space. I could see myself adding scientific value to an already massive community. Volunteering at the research park was just the catalyst I needed.

This experience helped give me direction and the confidence to apply for a PhD at the Quadram. I learnt that my inexperience didn’t have to limit me, and that volunteering was the push I needed to become inspired.