Exploring infectious disease through the MSc Medical Microbiology course

Emily Beswick is a graduate of the MSc Medical Microbiology course at Manchester and a current medical student. Here, she talks about the course and how it has helped her to explore possible career paths.

Emily BeswickWhy medical microbiology?

I have been interested in infectious disease since school, when I completed a history project on Yersinia pestis (the Black Death), going into a level of detail on bacteria that I think surprised my teachers! The intricate and specialised mechanisms that microorganisms have evolved to invade, infect and colonise the human body continue to fascinate me now.

I applied to a medicine course, but did not get a place. Instead, I studied biological sciences, and found a placement on an infectious diseases ward in Sheffield. This and my dissertation confirmed both my passion for research and my strong interest in viral disease transmission and molecular mechanisms of dissemination and replication.

I also frequently volunteered in local hospitals, and my patient-centred experiences there kept my aspiration to reapply for medicine burning. Knowing that the UCAS application process takes a year, I decided to study a master’s to further my interest, add to my CV, avoid a study gap and give me a springboard to PhD applications if I did not succeed in gaining a place at medical school.

Why Manchester?

The course’s extensive opportunities to gain practical experience in microbiological techniques really appealed to me. I was also impressed by the range of placements available for the dissertation project and the fact that the MSc is IBMS-accredited, improving employability after graduation.

I contacted some of the tutors to ask a few questions before starting, and they were very friendly and informative, giving a great first impression.

I had friends who studied at Manchester and had really positive reviews about the supportive learning environment, top facilities and laboratories. I also felt that the reputation of the University would stand me in good stead in terms of graduate employability.

All of this turned out to be accurate. I would highly recommend studying in Manchester.

Making the leap from undergraduate to postgraduate study

My research-intensive undergraduate course was pitched just right to make the transition smooth, and I did not find the workload too overwhelming.

The MSc dissertation was definitely more difficult, and expectations were higher, so I would say that was the main difference for me. However, by the time the dissertation rolled around, I did feel ready for it, having studied the taught component.

I also had to work part-time to pay for my forthcoming second undergraduate degree in medicine. I found the MSc fitted in well with my work as a waiter. Teaching staff tried to get to know us, and were very understanding and aware that most of the students were mature. Many were commuters and we almost all had other commitments such as part-time work and childcare.

In this respect, it was refreshing to be studying a course that took a holistic view of student life, and I felt understood and supported as an individual by the teaching style and staff.

Course highlights and challenges

I enjoyed the whole year. One highlight was the lovely, funny group of friends I made while I was studying at Manchester.

Another would be some of the group work involved as part of the course. For example, the penultimate module involved a collaborative ‘outbreak’ project where we were divided into small teams and allocated roles such as public health officer or medic, and then spent a week trying to control a fictional infectious outbreak. The whole experience was fun and different. I cannot remember if anyone had a coronavirus outbreak to try and contain…!

The biggest challenge was, of course, the chunky dissertation. My dissertation project was supervised by Dr Jorge Amich Elias of the Manchester Fungal Infection Group. The project focused on the nature of pathogen-pathogen interactions between Aspergillus fumigatus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, respectively the most prevalent fungal and bacterial pathogens that co-infect the lungs of people who have cystic fibrosis (CF).

My experiments were not producing significant results, contrary to how my supervisor had expected, and the extreme sensitivity of the qPCR method detecting background signal was at times frustrating. I had limited samples available for testing. Then there were a few unfortunate incidents like dropping the gel electrophoresis I had worked on all day, and an unbalanced centrifuge that ruined my last remaining microliters of sample. It happens!

My project was also disrupted by the 2019 Whaley Bridge dam burst, as it meant my train line to commute to university was closed for over two weeks. However, with the support of my supervisor and peers, I bounced back, remained positive and found a way around these challenges.

After writing my literature review, I found a way to explain my unglamorous, non-significant results in the context of the existing research, and I came to understand that negative results can be just as important as statistically significant findings. I think this is an important lesson to learn at the start of a research career.

After submitting my dissertation, I received a high first-class mark and my supervisor suggested that his research group would support me to publish my literature review. It was very rewarding to receive this recognition of all my hard work, and I ended the course on a high.

My path since graduation

I am currently in my second year as a medical student at the University of Sheffield. Thus far, I have found the knowledge gained from the MSc to be very useful and relevant to my medical course.

On a more clinical note, understanding how laboratories integrate with primary and secondary care settings is essential to team-working and good medical practice, and I do feel as though the master’s has prepared me well in this respect.

I am also working hard as a part-time microbiologist to independently finance my fees. I am grateful to have a more stimulating and secure job than my previous role as a waiter thanks to my Manchester degree. My new job aligns with my career direction, and also allows me to make use of, and build upon, the practical microbiology skills that I enjoyed learning at my time on the MSc.

As mentioned, since graduating I also worked on publishing my dissertation, and editing the manuscript kept me busy throughout the first lockdown.

Overall, I am so happy with the opportunities that studying at Manchester has given me. Although I have ‘turned to the dark side’, as my undergraduate supervisor put it, and am now pursuing a career as a medical doctor rather than a research scientist, the skills I have gained and experiences like becoming a published author have given me a fantastic starting position for my medical career.

In the future, I am looking towards a career specialising as a medical doctor in infectious diseases (ID), although I remain open to discovering new interests in different specialities. However, becoming an ID doctor would allow me to combine my interests in microbiology and communicable diseases, with my love of medicine and the privilege of treating patients.

Learn more about the MSc Medical Microbiology course at Manchester.

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