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Student Stories

Student Stories

Blogs and vlogs from students of the University of Edinburgh

Making potions and overcoming fear of the lab…

Image of the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the Western General Hospital at night
Reading Time: 2 minutes

…by Jamilla / from the UK / studying PhD Molecular Biology / 4th Year

I wanted to be a scientist from a young age – I was forever making potions or looking at flies under a toy microscope. I didn’t know about PhDs or MScs at that age; all I knew is that I wanted to be in a lab doing cool experiments. I imagined this would involve colour-change reactions, cures for cancer and snazzy lab coats. That all changed when I hated GCSE Science labs; getting shouted at for breaking a test tube or miscalculating a titration just wasn’t fun. Throughout my A Levels I continued to enjoy learning about science theory (I took Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Physics) but I didn’t know what else you could do with that besides being in a lab, which, quite frankly, terrified me.

I decided to apply for a Natural Sciences degree at Durham where I started with Biology, Maths and Physics but quickly switched to Biology and Geology. Labs during my degree were less scary because we got to work together with friends and demonstrators were on hand to help, but they still weren’t particularly fun. There was little scope for investigation. I was still unsure how I felt about lab work so I bravely emailed the Molecular Biology department at my home university to try and secure a lab placement over the summer holiday of my penultimate year. This was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – I ended up doing an 8 week placement in a lab and I loved it.

My project involved optimising cutting edge super-resolution imaging techniques. I learnt so much, had lots of fun, and became much more confident in my ability to do science. Afterwards, I couldn’t wait to be back in the lab and would frequently pop in during uni holidays. The principal investigator (PI) of the lab has been a longstanding mentor of mine and first suggested that I might be interested in doing a PhD.

I knew that I wanted to continue researching molecular biology and super resolution imaging so I applied to several PhD programmes across the UK. I found labs that worked on similar projects and directly emailed the PI, and also looked on websites such as Find a PhD. Twitter is also now an excellent source for finding PhD opportunities. I interviewed at a few universities, including the IGMM at University of Edinburgh. This was by far the most enjoyable interview experience, stressful at times (as to be expected), but everybody was so friendly and the IGMM is a beautiful building. I was lucky enough to be offered a place at the IGMM and now I am in my third year of a 4 year PhD.

I perform interesting experiments in the lab to test new hypotheses and generate data. I pretty much get to make potions (buffers) everyday and I do have a snazzy pink lab coat. Research based lab work is different to high school based labs – it’s more exciting and challenging, so don’t be put off by a bad experience. Try to get experience in a research based lab before deciding to embark on a PhD. A PhD in molecular biology has its ups and downs, but if you’re excited by science, enjoy asking questions and want to be at the forefront of research, then maybe you should give it a go!

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