By Steph Davies
Sometimes I feel like I’ve fallen off the face of the earth. Not quite a med student, not quite an honours student. I don’t quite fit into any category, which I have learnt makes it very easy to be forgotten. What’s more is that nobody understands what on earth we spend an entire year doing. Not only is our year very different from medicine and other courses, no two BMedSc students do the same thing. It can be very hard for someone on the outside to understand what a BMedSc is like. Research projects are notorious for things going wrong. Unlike in a medical degree where if you follow all the directions everything will probably be fine, research projects almost always have a part that doesn’t turn out as planned. And like I have learnt all too well, mistakes happen. In a way, this year has been more challenging than any other year in medicine.
So here’s a sneak peek into one of my days, in the hopes that us BMedSc students will be a little better understood and a little less forgotten.
7am: Today is the big day, I’ve spent two weeks culturing patient samples to generate an immune response. For some context, my project is on adverse drug reactions to anti-epileptics and characterising the patient’s reaction at a cellular level. This is the part where I get to see the results of two weeks of work. I would be more excited but I am still practically fast asleep. I’ve done this a number of times so I work with my supervisor like clockwork, each taking different jobs. I’m finally at a stage where I am trusted to do most of this by myself without my supervisor watching my every move. The first step is to count the cells I prepared a day earlier. 1, 2, 3, 4, is that a cell? Looks like it might be dead. I’ll count it anyway, I could use the extra numbers. 5, 6, 7. You get the picture. Alright, onto the next step. Count some cells. What’s after that? Count some more cells. Over and over again until I am really, really sick of counting cells.
10am: Three hours later and the experiment is finally set up. Now I’ve got two hours to kill until I have to do anything else. Time for that magical time of day. Coffee. Then, back to the office for some ‘light’ reading for my literature review. By light reading I mean that I’ve read over 100 papers in two months; although by the end of the two months, reading tends to constitute a quick ‘control + F’ to find whatever it is I’m really looking for. Despite being tedious, this process has helped me to develop a specialised knowledge in immunology, specifically in relation to the interaction between T cell receptors and human leukocyte antigen molecules. A BMedSc provides a unique opportunity to learn in depth about a niche area of medicine. Something we don’t normally get the opportunity to do in medicine.
I am lucky to be in a lab where there are seven other research students in my office, each working on a slightly different project. Whenever I have a question (which is often) there is always someone around to help out. This can involve anything from locating papers on the structure of T cell receptors to letting me use their free printing.
12pm: Five hours since I started and it’s finally time for step two. I calculate how much of the reagent I need and add it to every single well of the four plates. Then back into the incubator it goes for another four hours. This project involves a lot more killing time than I expected. Luckily, it also involves a lot of multitasking. At this stage of the year I can be juggling 6 different patient samples at various stages. I spend this break learning how to perform PCRs (polymerase chain reactions) with my supervisor. I have been really lucky to learn a variety of skills during this year. Ranging from cell culture to flow cytometry and analysis of T cell receptor sequencing (this is still very much a work in progress). I have been quick to learn that lab work requires fine hand eye coordination as well as the ability to work quickly and accurately. With more and more practice my fine motor skills have picked up although my gross motor skills have unfortunately not improved. Luckily, my supervisor has been there to catch anything I happen to knock over, like a full measuring cylinder, before disaster ensues.
4pm: Another four hours and it’s time for step three. I promise, despite the long hours lab work is actually fun. This time I make up a stain consisting of antibodies bound to fluorochromes so that I can identify what sort of T cells are causing the reaction (and whether they’re still alive). This is the part of the day when I know I’ve nearly made it because after this there are only two steps left. At this time of day there are usually quite a few people still left in the lab so there’s always someone to hang out with during the incubation periods. Usually they are also avoiding doing any work. Soon enough though I’m back in the lab for the next step. This is probably the only time when I cut my breaks short because the later I run, the later I get to leave.
6pm: Fast forward to the last step which involves washing off the previous addition and spinning the plates in the centrifuge. It’s also at this stage that I forget to turn on the centrifuge and come back to find it hasn’t even started. Provided that everything goes to plan and I don’t perform the last two steps in the wrong order (this has happened, killing all my cells and rendering the day’s work useless) I usually finish by 6pm. I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if the experiment has actually worked.