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In the latest in our series of blogs written by students who spend their summers undertaking work placements at the WIMM, Miriam O’Hanlon describes her experiences during the week she spent working in Hal Drakesmith’s lab in July – and how relieved she was not to just be making the tea.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first day of work experience at the WIMM. I had never done a placement in a lab before, only volunteered in science communication roles. In fact, I was hoping to use this experience to figure out which career path was a better fit for me: public outreach or medical research.

Having arranged the research experience at the WIMM at short notice, I worried that I’d be relegated to fetching coffees, or sat in a corner with a ‘pretend’ experiment to keep me occupied.

Luckily, the week proved a lot more interesting than that.

On arrival I was given a short tour and some historical background to the institute by Professor Hal Drakesmith, whose research group I would be joining for the week.

I hadn’t realised until then how influential the institute’s namesake, Sir David Weatherall, had been when he founded the institute in 1989. He instigated a paradigm shift towards trying to understand the molecular basis of diseases in order to treat them. This is now a fundamental principle in modern medicine.

The Drakesmith lab had a lively atmosphere as they went about their work studying the regulation of iron in the body.

Iron is a crucial component of haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that binds to oxygen to carry it around the body. Iron levels in the blood are primarily controlled by the hormone hepcidin. Understanding how hepcidin works is vital for helping patients with conditions such as anaemia (lack of red blood cells), thalassemia (malformed haemoglobin), or haemochromatosis (hereditary iron overload).

Iron levels are also important to the immune system. Microorganisms that can make you ill need iron to survive, grow and replicate. Therefore, there is an evolutionary drive for humans to develop ways of starving these microorganisms of iron to help stop infections.

The impact of iron levels on disease progression varies between disorders. For example, in early-stage HIV patients, high levels of hepcidin reduce levels of iron available to the virus, whereas in patients suffering from acute hepatitis-C this has not been observed.

These findings are not only interesting, but can have many practical implications for human welfare, such as introducing iron supplementation programmes in communities where certain infections are in prevalent..

It was really exciting seeing the methods I had been taught about during my A-levels put into practice (such as gel electrophoresis and PCR). I even had the opportunity to use a spectrophotometer – a fiddly operation involving transfer of a single drop of a liquid onto the machine for measuring concentrations of RNA and DNA.

Indeed most of the postdocs cheerfully admitted that a lot of their practical work came down to “pipetting tiny quantities of one colourless liquid into another”. That said, they also stressed how much more interesting experiments are to carry out when they’re your own problem to solve and you’re really curious about the result.

I also attended a lab meeting that showed me how much work goes into coming up with an elegant experimental design, and the myriad of issues that can come with interpreting confusing data. This made the seminar by a dynamic speaker from the University of Cambridge about the rapid progress in cancer drug research relating to the hormones oestrogen and progesterone even more impressive.

Everyone was happy to discuss the merits and drawbacks of working in university academia compared to industry, and entering research after studying medicine instead of going straight into scientific research. The advice I received about choosing where to work and what skills are important was invaluable.

Regular breaks in the tearoom served a purpose beyond getting the scientists their much-needed caffeine fix and a chance for socialising (which seemed to mainly consist of making jokes at each other’s expense, often about the cricket). It also opened up communication between the haematology and immunology departments. This provides the opportunity for cross-field collaboration, a fundamental requirement for scientific progress.

I had so many useful experiences over the week, including practising using online software to retrieve genomic information from databases and analysing it in various ways. These are tools I’ll use again and again at university and during a career in science.

I also learnt more about the management of animals used in the lab as models, something that had concerned me as a vegan. I was reassured by the thoroughness of the course you need to pass to gain a personal license to experiment on animals, and the continued efforts to reduce pain and stress caused to the creatures involved. The discussion into the ethics of animal trials proved fascinating.

I’m exceptionally grateful to everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to explain their work and career paths. I’m looking forward to coming back to work for a longer period with a different group at the WIMM in October.

Post edited by Lauren Howson and Bryony Graham.