Meet Fiona! She loves crocheting, Neil Gaiman and just generally hanging out. She’s also a medical science student currently completing her honours year in the school of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (BABS). Fiona is looking at toxins produced by microbes – like cyanobacteria – in the environment. She is investigating how they affect human brain cells and whether they could potentially cause neurodegenerartion, and therefore impact diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Or, as she puts it: “basically, I kill brain cells with my toxins.”
Fiona was lucky when she made the decision to complete an honours year; she had a good choice of labs and supervisors to pick from. Fiona decided she wanted to work with Professor Brett Neilan, she had worked as his intern in 2012 when she was completing her Science Faculty Vacation Scholarship. As she says, “when it came down to it, it’s who you want to spend your year with.” That’s something Fiona has learnt in her research career at UNSW, and explains: “the main skill I have really learnt is dealing with people… you have to be able to get along with people in the lab.”
However, this is UNSW and therefore there has been plenty more to learn. A striking difference between research at undergrad compared to honours level and beyond is that experiments don’t always go according to plan! As Fiona explains: “When you’re in undergrad, things work… and even if they don’t, [lab demonstrators will say] oh, here’s one we prepared earlier. But it doesn’t work like that in research. I found that out the hard way when I did my internship.”
Fiona’s internship was a steep learning curve, remarking that there was: “a lot of waiting, you have to have a lot of patience!” But she also describes the internship as being really helpful in terms of preparing her for honours. It allowed her to build on concepts developed in undergrad and she was able to refine her lab skills – before she moved on to killing brain cells with toxins. Honours itself is very useful. Fiona plans to study medicine next, and she says “I think most medical degrees have such an emphasis on research…as a student you [need to get that] research experience beforehand and I think that’s what the honours year provided me with.”
So, prospective research student, you want some advice? Get involved! Volunteer in a lab, do a research subject and most importantly, as Fiona points out: – “ask questions! Don’t feel intimidated by the whole institution of research.” And prepare for a little bit of failure every now and then, because failure is an important part of science. As Batman taught her, we fall to pick ourselves up again. Enough said.
by Alex Soderlund