I can’t point to one moment when I became interested in science. I started simply by enjoying the spectacle of it: from the Science Museum bubble show, or my teacher in second grade getting out a box of pig hearts for us to see how blood was pumped around the body, to the fizzing and explosions of lower school chemistry club. As I began my secondary education, I moved into appreciating the real science behind the spectacle and began my love affair with the life sciences.
Above all I became enthused by the sense of potential it offered, particularly when we studied more recent developments such as genetics and the workings of biotechnology. The newspapers seem to report new developments constantly, such as the possibility of organ transplants without donors thanks to a combination of iPSCs and bioprinting; or using genome editing to eliminate HIV.
Further reading, from New Scientist and Biological Science Review article, books such as ‘The Epigenetics Revolution’ by Nessa Carey, Matt Ridley’s ‘Genome’ and ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ by Jared Diamond, gave me a more thorough understanding of our species. Particularly in the startling similarities between us and our simian cousins, such as the existence of Dunbar’s number. Also an understanding that this knowledge of biology’s innermost functions, whether applied through biotechnology or used to gain a greater understanding of the world, is going to be an extraordinarily important and possibly even species saving aspect of science in the 21st century.
I’ve also been inspired by the health benefits genetics offers, discussing with a family member his work at NIH Bethesda using molecular genetic techniques in identifying the gene that causes chronic itching and its implications for finding new treatments that will benefit people with conditions like eczema or psoriasis. All this has sparked my desire to study genetics and to develop the knowledge and skills to pursue a career in the field.
Over the summer I’ve been to two work placements directly relevant to my study ambitions. The first was a week at the MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit at Harwell. There I got to do a western blot test and photograph the electrophoresis results. I also got to stain, section and mount a set of mouse organs for microscopy analysis using various staining techniques. This was extremely fiddly but I found it fascinating to see such detail when viewed under an optical microscope. I also ‘gowned up’ to go into the clean room environment where the Unit’s mice are bred, as well as observe the implantation of a genetically modified blastocyst and learnt how to sex a mouse foetus.
I later spent a week at the Wellcome Trust Human Genetics Centre in Oxford. I toured the WTCHG’s microscopy lab then over the following few days did a variety of hands-on lab work: starting by taking a sample of my own saliva, using a spectrophotometer to measure the amount of DNA present, extracting the DNA, amplifying a sample using a Polymerase Chain Reaction, preparing the samples for Sanger sequencing and comparing the results with a genome database. This gave me a fascinating insight into how scientific research is undertaken by collaborative teams in the laboratory and a taste of the patience and perseverance that underpins every role within the lab. I also gained some hands-on experience of genetic manipulation techniques, and an appreciation of how even the more obscure aspects of the life sciences, such as histology, play a vital role in the overall undertaking of research.
Away from my studies, I’m more notorious for arguing over the merits of the original ‘Dune’ over the sequels than the ramifications of Transhumanism; and I’m no more likely to be found in the school’s science society than practicing my jazz pieces on my clarinet or being shouted at by my fencing coach for stepping into corps à corps again!