FBMH Stories: Claire Laxton

As part of our FBMH Stories feature for Instagram, we chatted to Claire, who recently graduated with a BSc in Pharmacology with Industrial/Professional Experience.

Claire took us through her time at University, from deciding on the right course for her, to her fantastic time on placement in The Gambia, to her final year research project and next steps.

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“I was really excited to get out there and start my adventure”

“We were immersed in the culture and met loads of new people who had a significant impact on shaping and refining my perspectives and values”

How did you decide on doing Pharmacology at University?

During A-levels I contemplated studying medicine. I enjoyed the human health and clinical side of biology, and wanted a job that makes a difference. But I also liked chemical and molecular stuff a lot, especially one assignment we did about Aspirin and how it worked in the body.

It was at the Manchester open day that I met a pharmacology student who really sold the course to me and I thought ‘yep, that sounds like me’. It suited my indecisiveness and I figured if I did that for three years, and then wanted to pursue medicine, I could go via graduate entry.

Manchester offered a common first year where you can start broad and specialise at the end of the year once you’ve tried a bit of everything. So, I started on Biomedical Science and then specialised in Pharmacology.

I also wanted to do a year in industry to broaden my horizons and help with getting a job afterwards. (FYI many graduate jobs these days prefer, at least a year of industrial/professional experience, regardless of your degree). I would honestly recommend doing work experience to everyone, whether it is for a whole year or even just a summer internship. It is invaluable in building skills/confidence and really sets you apart when you graduate. My internship convinced me that I wanted to pursue research.

How did you feel when you set off for The Gambia for your placement year?

I was naturally a little nervous, excited, and didn’t know what to expect. I can be quite a stressy person so I was fretting over making sure I had packed everything, vaccinations, my insect repellent, clothes and sun cream. I was all packed two days before the flight, which is very unlike me!

My placement was at the Medical Research Council Unit in The GambiaI’d never really been outside of Europe or ‘the West’, so I knew this would be a completely new experience and I was mostly just really excited to get out there and start my adventure.

What did you learn out there?

Big question. I know it sounds cliché, but I learnt so much. I was out there for almost a whole year (although I did go back home for Christmas break) which was the longest I had been abroad ever.

I obviously learnt loads of new things about research, what it’s like to be in the lab every day, how to manage a project, how to deal with both good and disappointing results, how to write and present these like a ‘proper’ scientist.

I learnt how to read and critique published literature, as well as tons of new scientific concepts, which has been so useful coming back into final year. I also learnt about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, my likes and dislikes, and what I can and can’t cope with!

We were in a new place, so we were immersed in the culture and met loads of new people who had a significant impact on shaping and refining my perspectives and values. I learnt about how to navigate a foreign culture and had a go at learning the language, which came in handy when haggling!

Honestly every day I would learn something new, or have a new, sometimes extraordinary experience. It is the main reason I would massively recommend going abroad during your degree, it is such a safe way to travel and really immerse yourself in a different place and accumulate some cool stories.

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How did you feel on the plane home?

Although I had an awesome year living abroad, there were also some pretty tough times too, with relationships, my research and logistics that come with living in a developing country. But I went home knowing it had made me a better scientist and more rounded individual, and I had made some incredible memories and great friends along the way.

That’s just placement; it’s amazing, it’s challenging and it makes you learn and grow so much. However, I knew I couldn’t live like that forever; I had a degree to go back and finish and family and friends I’d missed while away. All good things must end.

That’s how I felt when I left; I still loved the place, and could’ve happily stayed a month or so longer but I knew people who had been out for too long and it does get hard when homesickness strikes and with the slow speed of everything. I was looking forward to getting back to buses that ran on time and home cooked British food (I missed fresh dairy so much!). I also left just before the rains, and I wasn’t sorry to miss the rainy season again!

What advice would you give to get the most out of your placement?

Honestly, go abroad if you can. If it’s not paid and you’re worried you can’t afford it, don’t just write if off straight away.

There are so many weird grants and bursaries, plus Student Finance to help you out. Mine wasn’t paid, but MRC provided us accommodation, the University covered our insurance, and Student Finance gave me an increased loan (as if you’re from a low-income family, you often get a very generous travel bursary).

I almost didn’t apply thinking I couldn’t afford it, and in the end, with my student loan, plus money I’d saved working part time in second year (plus the fact that living was much cheaper there) I was better off out in Gambia than I was in Manchester!

Placement is what you make it, but do you really want to spend a year in Stevenage, when you could spend it in Africa, or Thailand or Japan, Denmark, Vienna, Vancouver, California, New Zealand, Italy, Costa Rica…  (and the list goes on)? Don’t let money stop you, get creative!

What area of pharmacology did you study in final year?

For my final year project I was in the lab pretty much 9-5 collecting data for a research project looking at an enzyme in the bacteria that causes Tuberculosis (TB).

It’s an important enzyme involved in the disease and so my lab in Manchester is working with other labs around the country, including Cambridge and Cardiff, to try and develop anti-TB drugs that target this enzyme and its relatives.

The research is still in its early stages and I only contributed the tiny bit I could in my short 10-week project, but that’s the nature of science these days: highly collaborative, and a long process!

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At graduation Claire won the Pharmacology Undergraduate Student of the Year award.

What does next year have in store?

After my year in The Gambia I decided I wanted to pursue this research thing for a few more years; partly because it’s a career that will enable me to travel and despite my initial reservations, I really love it.

On the other hand, my work at MRC in Gambia was not related to drugs or pharmacology, and I really missed it whilst I was away! Being back in my project lab, I’ve been reunited with what brought me to research: making medicines.

In January I got a place on the Wellcome Trust PhD programme in Antimicrobials and Antimicrobial Resistance. This means that at least for the next four years, I’ll be doing a PhD researching something I’ve been quite passionate about since sixth form; after that, who knows?

I’m really excited to start the next chapter, even though it does mean saying a sad goodbye to Manchester – hopefully not forever.

If you have a story to tell about university life, send us an email to digitalfbmh@manchester.ac.uk with the title ‘FBMH Stories’ and tell us what you are studying.

Learn more about studying Pharmacology with Industrial Experience at the University of Manchester.

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