Life in the Lab on a Biosciences MSci course: Sarah’s story

My name is Sarah and I am part of the (first ever!) Biosciences Integrated Master’s cohort. This is an undergraduate course that incorporates a master’s year into a normal BSc course. It’s been a long four years, but I will soon be graduating with an MSci in Biomedical Sciences – sounds fancy, right?

Michael Smith biological research building
Michael Smith building – my home for the year

The course is four years long. Year 1 and 2 are identical to the BSc, whilst Year 3 is slightly more tailored towards the master’s; in addition to attending regular lectures, we write research proposals and do some bioinformatics bits.

Year 4 runs from September-May, and is entirely spent conducting research in a lab that you have selected. Some students chose the integrated master’s because they were interested in pursuing a PhD or a career in industry.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was in two minds about research. It seemed interesting, but also intimidating – historically, I get nervous and clumsy in lab practicals! I also knew that I wanted to do something a little more extensive than a regular final year research project, and so the master’s felt like a natural progression and a chance to dip my toes into the lab.

This year I was based in a pharmacology lab. My project involved investigating how factors such as pH and phosphate levels influence the activity of an extracellular calcium-sensing receptor. This receptor is found in several tissues, but it is particularly important in the parathyroid gland where it regulates calcium homeostasis. It is therefore important to understand how various factors affect this receptor, in order to improve the effectiveness of drugs targeted to it.

Trip to Chester with my Lab Group
Trip to Chester with my Lab Group

Until this year, however, my lab experience was… let’s say modest, so the thought of planning and conducting my own research was equally exciting and terrifying. Thankfully, there was a particularly patient PhD student in my lab to show me the ropes.

My experiments involved exposing cells to various conditions and measuring how this affected receptor activity using epifluorescence microscopy and western blot (I am now the self-proclaimed western queen).

A typical day would involve starting at around 9 or 10am, checking my emails, then getting stuck into lab work, either conducting an experiment or prepping for upcoming experiments. I was very lucky because my supervisor was available in person most days to discuss experiments and results; the good, the bad, and the ugly ones.

Other times I would be number crunching or writing up at my desk. I decided when to call it a day (usually 5-6pm), but there were days when home time was looking more like 7…8…9pm. I survived though, using copious amounts of tea and a generously filled biscuit tin.

Scientific research poster
We got there in the end – me with my final assessment piece of the year

The master’s component of the course is assessed in several ways – first we have continuous assessment in the form of our lab performance. We also have to prepare presentations and abstracts and, more recently, we handed in our project report and research poster. The poster session was a great opportunity to learn about my coursemates’ research areas, share knowledge, and moan about looming deadlines.

In December, I was really lucky to be invited to a consortium in Oxford. I got to meet the researchers whose work I had been reading about for months, including the inventor of Cinacalcet – a drug given to patients with chronic kidney disease. This experience really put my own work into perspective and answered some of my burning research questions. I even managed to squeeze in some Christmas shopping and a visit to the colleges.

Despite the occasional late nights, I still managed to have a social life, believe it or not. I treated the master’s like a full-time job, committing to it Monday-Friday, meaning for the first time in a looong time, I could enjoy weekends (no Saturday trips to the library here!).

Royal Exchange Theatre performance Breaking the Code
Lab Group trip to see Breaking the Code at the Royal Exchange Theatre

I got onboard with some public engagement opportunities in my spare time, including Pint of Science in May. I also organised my time so that I could work my part-time job as a lab demonstrator for UCAS open days on Wednesday afternoons. University was fairly sociable too – our building had a monthly happy hour with £1 drinks (get in), so I usually caught up with MSci students and other lab groups there. I also had a few days out with my lab, including shopping in Chester and a visit to the Royal Exchange Theatre to see Breaking the Code, a play based on the life of Alan Turing.

Sunny weather in the park with friends
Enjoying the 28°C weather while it lasted

I’ve learned a great deal both inside and outside of the lab this year. Aside from all the technical laboratory skills I’ve picked up, I have also learned that research can be tough and often slow. It is therefore important to have a good relationship with your lab group and have the initiative to ask for help.

There were times where I felt like things were going backwards, but a quick meeting with my supervisor and a revised approach usually did the trick. With time I realised that just because a result isn’t positive or as expected, it doesn’t mean it’s not useful, and all those replicate experiments pay off when you finally find something interesting.

Last day in the research lab
Potential last day attempt #365894

This year I also discovered that I really love writing and communications, so much so that I’m actually looking for jobs in science communication and public engagement. I am also considering applying for a PhD in the future, but for now I’d like a little break from the lab. In any case, the master’s has been a beneficial and worthwhile experience for me.

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