How I went from being a food allergy sufferer to researching food allergy at Manchester

Suffering with intense food allergies growing up can be difficult. You are often left wondering why you are different to the majority of other people when it comes to lunch time snacks and evening meals. Final year MSci Genetics student, Ayah Wafi, had these experiences growing up and became curious as to why she had certain allergies. Ultimately, this had led to a budding career in allergy research. Below, she discusses how Manchester has helped her to achieve this, from being made to feel medically safe on campus to working alongside industry leaders in food allergies..

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Why I chose to study Genetics 

My decision to study Genetics stemmed from my experiences growing up with food allergies. I always wondered why I had food allergies growing up -could it be a combination of epigenetic risk factors and environmental influence or something else? Curious to know why, I embarked on a journey which ended up exceeding my expectations.

Why I chose Manchester

Manchester stood out to me, partly because it was the only university where my interviewer actually cared about my opinion and asked daring questions. Also, the serenity of the campus with its modern lecture theatres and harmonious red brick buildings really appealed to me. Essentially, Manchester was the only place I could imagine myself living.

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The course itself

My course at Manchester was flexible, and I was encouraged to explore my interests through a variety of optional units. Compared to my friends who had taken similar courses at different universities, my course seemed limitless. I took interdisciplinary courses such as communicating with confidence, a history of biology in 20 objects and bioethics and optional units such as haematology and immunology.

In third year, we were given a list of several possible supervisors who were willing to take up MSci students. I eagerly searched through this list until I came across the food allergy researcher Professor Clare Mills. Through collaboration with Professor Clare Mills, Dr John Curtin and Dr Elaine Gauson, I achieved my dream to research the genetic determinants of IgE-mediated food allergy.

In this project I synthesised a database of potential food allergy susceptibility genes, exploited bioinformatic tools to investigate these genes in a fully genotyped birth cohort, extracted DNA from cell cultures and gained a working understanding of qPCR. Being a part of the Mills lab group was an incredible opportunity to meet like-minded individuals with a passion for researching food allergy.

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My day to day consisted of waking up at around 8am and being in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) by 9.30am, either in the lab or on my desk researching food allergy, right up until 5pm when I would go home. Doing an Msci prepared me for working life.

The challenges I faced

I faced many challenges at university those typical to any student, such as learning how to do laundry and cook for myself but also those faced by my food allergies. I became increasingly wary and anxious of what and where I was eating. This was not helped by my severe allergic reaction which occurred at my 20th  birthday meal and required an ambulance to come to my rescue.

Shortly after my incident I contacted Manchester city council who within days of my complaint assessed the restaurant. My doctors in Manchester looked after me with regular check-ups with my nominated asthma nurse and allergy consultant. In Manchester, I felt medically safe.

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Yet, what started off as worries about my food allergies soon turned into overthinking about everything. Through talking to a university counsellor,  I was enrolled on a 4-week cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course and further still was advised to utilise the student finance DSA scheme which partners you with a personal mentor. My mentor stayed with me for my 3rd and 4th year and helped me overcome my overthinking.

Other things that allowed me to develop

During my time at Manchester I took part in the Gilbert and Sullivan society, I worked as the events officer for the University of Manchester’s Arab Society, became the third year MSci rep – where I managed a group of roughly 60 MSci students – and volunteered at the university museum. I also joined the Manchester gold mentoring scheme twice and was connected with great mentors who helped me to achieve my career goals.

My first mentor facilitated my 2019 summer internship working under the science advisor to the organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons (OPCW). During my Msci year, I attended the allergy symposium at Wythenshawe hospital and networked with journalists to publish articles on airline food allergy awareness.

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Future plans 

Manchester has given me a great insight into my strengths and interests. I have learned that I enjoy science policy, public engagement and communication. I hope to pave a career in one if not all of these fields.

My advice

My advice to prospective students would be:

  • To have an interest and be committed in perusing it;
  • To take UCIL units to broaden your perspective and meet people from other degree disciplines.
  • To take every opportunity Manchester offers you, whether that is going to a graduate fair or going to meet the professional’s events or responding to emails (if I had not responded to the Manchester gold mentoring scheme email I would not have gotten my internship at OPCW).
  • To not be afraid to approach advisers at university about any issues you face, they will do their best to support you.

 

 


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