James Lovatt is an undergraduate student from London, studying Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia. A keen sportsman and actor, who has taken part in professional productions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as many TV shows, James also has a strong interest in science, and biology in particular. This developed from a desire to give back to the less fortunate in society, nurtured following his experiences travelling and experiencing different cultures. When he was eleven, James travelled the world whilst being home-schooled, visiting 16 countries across three different continents. What he experienced during this, meeting people who had very little but would share what they did have, left a lasting mark, and James still now feels he learnt more in that year than he ever would in a more formal education setting.
James’ UEA course included a Year in Industry, offering the opportunity to spend the third year on a relevant placement developing work skills and experience. James picks up the story:
“Throughout my whole second year, I looked for placement opportunities. However, it was getting to the point where I didn’t want to settle for a placement that was not going to be right for me. That was when Professor Ian Clark, the head of the year in industry, told me about a position at Quadram that seemed to fit my interests.
“I began to meet with Dr Stephen Robinson to discuss a role with his laboratory and he sold me on the placement. It seemed a very hands-on and novel project. I’d been told that the group were all quite young and sociable which drew me to the role also as I didn’t want to be working in isolation for the year with little social interaction.”
Stephen Robinson leads a research group in the Quadram Institute studying interactions between the vascular system and the microbiome – the diverse population of microbes that lives in and on our bodies.
“I worked in the gut microbes and health programme where our main focus was an intertest in the vascular systems and how they develop through time. This also related to how changing the gut microbiome could influence other parts of the body. More specifically, my research area was looking at how changing the gut microbiome could affect the brain’s vascularisation (angiogenic behaviour). This aimed to see if various antibiotics that are clinically relevant for humans would affect different areas of the body, like the brain, when the drug enters the body and therefore, the gut microbiota.”
James remembers his first day working in the group fondly:
“I met the team and they all seemed very close. I thought that was exactly how I hope to be with my colleagues in the future. A postdoc showed me around the laboratory and where to find my office seat. I shadowed him for the first day to see just a few things that I could potentially be doing. At the end of the day I felt excited about the projects I could be working on. It was a lot to take in but I felt ready for the challenge.”
“Before I was able to begin my own projects, I learnt from the PhD students and post docs how to perform various techniques I would need to know. I was also able to independently research a few techniques so that I was already familiar with the equipment being shown to me.”
Before long, James had settled into his role in the team, balancing his own research projects with work supporting the research group as a whole. This is the depth of work experience that the Year in Industry degrees allow students to obtain, putting the knowledge they learn into practice but also getting a full picture of what a future career in their area would be like. They also get to pick up valuable skills, increasing their employability.
“Most days were different dependent on what experiment was being run. However, every day a task was assigned to each member of our lab to do, whether that be cleaning the sterile hoods, testing mycoplasma, restocking on pipettes and other essentials, emptying the bins or depositing chemical waste. Usually on Thursdays a few of us were assigned reaction duty where we plated various reactions being undertaken by others in the lab. This meant on Fridays our other colleagues would run and analyse the gels.”
“Most days were busy with stuff that needed doing, whether it be your duties for the lab or your own experimental procedures. This really helped me with my time management skills though as I was able to figure out when I could help with other priorities whilst also achieving my own work. For example, if I had a six hour staining procedure to do, it was more than likely that at some point there would be an hour or so gap for incubation. This is when I would perform reactions or run a gel for example, so that I was not waiting for an hour doing nothing. Some weeks I would help out with the mice for other colleague’s experiments, annotating breeding cards or preparing syringes for oral gavaging. This would also have to be factored into my timings on when I can help back at the lab. Not all days were this busy, which allowed me to analyse data at my computer or research the background for my project.”
“Creating novel research is obviously an amazing opportunity. But there were challenges along the way. With science, as is natural, there were some problems with experiments either not working efficiently or proving not to be beneficial. My original project involved looking at how certain bacteria could restore function to a compromised gut microbiome. Unfortunately, there were difficulties growing this bacterium up. My supervisor and I had to think about what avenues to explore. It ended up being, in my opinion, beneficial as I could explore a wider range of brain function at different stages of the mouse life cycle.”
Overcoming difficulties like this is part of working in science, and the experience has clearly been valuable to James. But 2020 threw up an even bigger challenge in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many businesses around the world have felt the full force of lockdowns and had to adjust their routines accordingly. I was no different. Luckily, my ongoing experiments had come to a stop beforehand so I did not need to travel to the laboratory during the pandemic. This allowed me to focus solely on my analysis and write up of my dissertation. Weekly zoom calls were introduced to keep updated on what each other were doing inside and outside the lab. The group tried to entertain each other with various meetings to discuss journals and papers they had read recently. I also held an online event where I hosted a quiz for our group which I found very fun. I think it was very difficult for others who were midway through projects, and I was also gutted to not be able to continue my research. There are still many experiments I would have liked to run to help depict part of the gut/brain communication picture.”
Despite the disruption, James completed his placement and submitted his dissertation, and is now back at UEA in his final year of study, but can reflect on his time in the Robinson Group in the Quadram Institute and what he has learned.
“Before working at Quadram, I had a few experiences in a lab setting. I took a summer internship working at the University of Surrey in the Electro-physiology department in 2016, helping to remove cartilage from horse legs to examine the changes in cells and protein secretions. This was the first hands on lab experience I had working with real animals on real research. At university, labs are a crucial part of the syllabus in each year, learning various techniques along the way. But this experience, like the 2016 internship, was very much carefully guided. Once I reached Quadram I understood as a scientist you are independent, and people trust your decision making and problem solving ability. If I needed help, I would need to seek out for it instead of having someone watching my every movement. Quadram gave me a taste of what being a real scientist would be like.
James and the team enjoy pre-pandemic paintballing
“I learnt a lot about independent working and time management. Being able to juggle multiple tasks whilst keeping a calm head and managing to sort through each task and planning carefully was something I will take away with me into future jobs regardless of where they might be. My scientific confidence in the lab has definitely improved, with things that on day one scared me, like running a gel, almost becoming second nature.”
“Having such an intelligent and caring team really taught me about teamwork and how helping each other can improve everyone’s performance. We are all striving towards the same thing; innovating our novel ideas in science. This role showed me that under pressure I can still work effectively and adapt to scenarios. Experiments going wrong taught me about resilience and how to bounce back from failed investigations. Although I would say I already had good communication skills, I think my scientific literacy and understanding of concepts has increased, allowing me to engage new ideas and problem solve in relation to research issues, not only around my subject but other related topics. I’ve learnt so many techniques, ranging from confocal microscopy to sectioning on a microtome which I will take forward with me in my final year of biological sciences degree and hopefully after that also. Apart from these skills I’ve also matured a significant amount, socialising with colleagues in a work setting. I now understand what is expected of a professional in the workplace.”
Reflecting on James’ time his group, Stephen agrees about the importance of all-round learing that the year in industry placements provide
“I feel that teaching budding scientist the soft skills of a life in a research laboratory is as important as teaching them the hard skills of experimentation. Thus, as James mentions, a team that works well together is vital. The year-long industry placements afford us and the student the time to work on both. It’s such a wonderful way to interact with young scientists.
“James fitted in immediately with the other members of the group and quickly became a vital member of the team, both with respect to performing his own experiments, and in helping to keep up morale, especially during lockdown (he even organised a now “famous” virtual pub quiz at a point when everyone was feeling pretty low).”
James is due to complete his degree next year, but is yet to decide on the next steps of his career.
“It is very difficult to say what I’ll be doing after my degree. There are such a variety of jobs that interest me. I think what is for sure, is that science will need to be involved in my job. This placement year has shown me that.”