I’m very honoured to have won this year’s BACR Student Impact Award, it is very special to win a prize in recognition of doing something which means so much to me. Hopefully I can help to inspire others in science to consider how they can get involved in widening participation initiatives to help bring both science and opportunity to those from underprivileged backgrounds.
None of my parents went to university, the fact that I did A-levels was already a humongous educational achievement. Perhaps it should have been anticipated that I’d turn out to be a scientist from a young age – as soon as I could talk, I was asking questions about things – wanting to know why things are the way they are, how we know something works in a certain way. In actual fact, I suspect most people just thought I was a bit nosy!
Being a scientist was never even on my radar as a career. It’s one of those jobs that seemed so far removed from anything anyone I knew was doing that it probably seemed about as realistic as me being a TV star or pop singer. It was through school that I realised that my interests lay in science – specifically, in medical science. It was the subject where I had the most questions about everything I was being taught. I was blessed to have some teachers who were willing to encourage me to do further research, and to consider what it would mean to go to university to study more. As soon as it became apparent that some of the questions I had about diseases (like cancer) couldn’t be answered because nobody actually knew the answer yet, I was determined to get into university so I could be taught all the details I wanted to know and currently couldn’t understand.
Getting into university seemed like a mountain to climb of unknown heights. Luckily, I had a supportive sixth form who presented us with opportunities such as applying to the Manchester Access Programme and summer schools. I was lucky enough to get a place on the UNIQ Biochemistry summer school at Oxford, where I spent a week having a taster as to what being a student studying Biochemistry at Oxford might be like. I also got a place on the Manchester Access Programme (MAP), The University of Manchester’s access scheme aimed at local sixth form and college students from underprivileged backgrounds.
MAP changed my life. It helped me (and my family, through their parents’ information sessions) to understand what applying to university looked like, it broke down the scariness of student finance, and it helped me to explore my options. It is through MAP that I realised the right course for me to study was Medical Biochemistry. I also got help with writing a higher-level essay by completing the MAP Academic Assignment, and a taste of university life at the MAP University Life Conference. Being on MAP was hand on heart one of the greatest things ever to happen to me.
I completed an integrated Master’s in Medical Biochemistry at The University of Manchester, and throughout my studies I was a student ambassador at various university events, including MAP events. Being able to be on the other side of things felt like a real honour, and it was a great way to meet other ambassadors who had also been through MAP and perhaps came from similar backgrounds to mine. I was worried that I’d stick out at university because it wasn’t something people from families like mine did, but I was fortunately able to find a whole range of friends, including ones who understood the feeling of being the first in your family to experience uni.
During my degree, I was encouraged to try and get some experience in a lab. I managed to secure a Medical Research Council funded summer research placement in a lab at the university, and it was this, alongside my Master’s project, which made me see that I wanted to stay in science. What better career is there than one where you are actively encouraged to ask questions all the time, and to try and find out the answers? That led to me having to figure out how to apply to do a funded PhD – definitely another brand-new thing to grasp! Luckily, I had some great mentors and support through the university, and I was delighted to secure the project I really wanted. My PhD is funded by Cancer Research UK and I’m interested in finding out about how Bcl-2 family interactions govern apoptotic priming. I was fortunate enough to contribute to a paper the lab had published last year, and am hopeful that my own research will be sent off to a journal before I finish my PhD next year.
I’m now a MAP tutor, which means I help up to six students a year with their academic assignment. This involves meeting with them to set a question, guiding them through the research and writing process, and giving feedback on a draft before their final submission. I am also one of The University of Manchester’s Widening Participation Fellows. This is a position I am honoured to have, as it enables me to visit local schools and also host workshops on campus for visiting pupils. I have designed and delivered a range of workshops, ranging from one which teaches GCSE students about mitochondria to one aimed at sixth form students about programmed cell death. I also love doing primary school visits, as it means I can work with a school to run some scientific investigation workshops with children to show them that everyone is a scientist. I think this is a really important message, and something which should be key to any outreach done by research institutes. If I’d have known as a child that by being curious enough to ask questions and willing enough to try and find out the answers, you’re already a scientist, I think it would have broken down some of the distance between me and what always sounded like a very fancy job!
I love the lab I’m in. We’ve got a good mix of projects under multiple supervisors, so it means there’s always plenty to learn in lab meetings! It also means I’ve had the opportunity to mentor many students, from summer project students through to Master’s students. I’ve also made some amazing friends through getting involved with things. When I started my PhD, a couple of PhD students were already leading an eco-campaign in our lab. I got involved by helping to organise collection of plastics for reuse, and by teaching other lab members about the recycling schemes available to them. I’ve also been on the organising committee for the Division of Cancer Sciences PGR showcase, and helped organise some other events for PGRs too. I think it’s really important to get involved with opportunities to both meet new people and broaden your skillset.
Away from science, I’m a Guide leader, and this is a really important role to me. It’s a volunteering commitment which allows me to switch off from science for a while and focus on providing incredible experiences to girls from my local area. I definitely think it’s important for PhD students to find something to do in their spare time which gives them a complete break from science. It allows you to set boundaries and refresh yourself, so that your work doesn’t become a massive burden which takes over your life! I know I certainly find it hard to switch off from thinking about science sometimes, as do some of my lab friends. We’ve all got things we do to try and keep our mental health in check and avoid burnout, whether it’s volunteering, exercise, craft projects or looking after our plants! Checking in with one another about our lives beyond the lab is just as important as supporting one another through the ups and downs of our experiments.
Once again, I’m very humbled to receive this year’s BACR Student Impact Award. Really, everything I am able to do is possible thanks to others, such as the MAP team at the university, my supervisors, the team down at Manchester Cancer Research Centre, my family, my friends, and a whole list of other fantastic people. I like to think that by being involved in widening participation initiatives I’m helping to make a small difference to pupils who may be in a similar situation to where I was as a child. I’m firmly of the belief that you’ve got to see opportunities to start to believe they’re an option for you. Hopefully, the more widening participation and outreach events research institutes do, the more pupils will consider if further study is the right option for them. After all, to have diversity in your research, you first need to have diversity in your recruitment.
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