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Placement at University of Cambridge, Department of Medicine is once in a lifetime experience

Billy Clark Pembroke

Without support from my careers consultant and placement adviser, I would not be where I am today. They really believed in me, even when I didn't.

Billy, Undergraduate

Biomedical Sciences (Genetics) BSc

From UK

Tell us a bit about your current role and your career journey so far.

I'm currently on my placement year and I'm working in the Department of Medicine at Cambridge University (CITIID). I work alongside global health experts specialising in infectious diseases. It is a wonderful opportunity to work with such amazing and lovely people. My focus is on my own project on Shigella diagnostics which is an important area that has been surprisingly neglected and is in need of modernisation.

On my journey to where I am today, I have volunteered in several labs but one left a massive impact on me. My summer internship at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health was my first experience of what actual research is. It was such an honour to work there, the environment was so encouraging and really shaped the person I am today. I miss being there. I was assisting on a project in the Developmental Biology of Birth Defects Section (Nephro-Urology Unit) on Denys-Drash syndrome characterising the development of disease.

What does a typical day involve?

A typical day currently involves reading literature related to Shigella or any relevant bacteria of interest. Then using bioinformatic tools to attempt to design specific PCR Primers to test later in the laboratory. Ideally, in the future this will turn into a multiplex and diagnostic dipsticks in a rapid field diagnosis kit. I also currently work on a review paper regarding bacterial AB toxins.

What have been the highlights of this experience?

There have been a lot of highlights during my placement. A big one is how welcoming everyone has been towards me. I even got to meet most people before I officially started during regular journal clubs. Being able to work during a pandemic on a project that I really care about is a big deal to me. It is one of those once in a lifetime experiences. The main highlight has been developing an interest in Shigella, realising how neglected it is and the positive impact my project could have.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and how have you overcome them?

Project-wise, the biggest challenge is starting designing primers. I had to do so much literature searching just to find only a few genes to focus on and they can still be found in other micro-organisms. I never learned how to do this so I was armed with the limited knowledge that one of my colleagues taught me. I'm slowly making my way through it but I have realised that nothing is ever perfect. I've learnt that as long as I make it as specific as I possibly can, it is good enough and there is no point in stressing too much about other ways to overcome this.

A personal challenge is that I struggle with imposter syndrome, so it's quite easy for someone of my background to feel out of place. I was the first person in my family to go to college, let alone even university. Another way imposter syndrome eats at me is that in topics that I'm interested in and care about such genetics, microbiology and oncology, the more I learn the less I feel that I know about the topics. It is also hard being surrounded by such great people and experts but I hope it rubs off on to me. I'm just slowly trying to improve myself and reach the goals I set for myself. It helps to recap on what I've achieved every so often, even the little victories add up!

Please tell us about the support you have received from the PDC and how it has helped your professional development.

I love the PDC! My CV was empty before I came to Brunel. Without support from the PDC, specifically the Bioscience people, I would not be where I am today. They really believed in me, even when I didn't. I managed to get my summer internship via the help of the Bioscience careers consultant. I didn't know how to write a CV and I didn't even have a job before university. She patiently sat down with me so often and constantly picked apart my CV until it's something I am actually proud to send to employers. I was determined to intern at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and my advisor was with me every step of the way. When I was applying to placements, I saw both my careers advisor and placement advisor regularly. They helped me send several applications out but after a while I was starting to feel defeated, especially as I was also dealing with a rough time in my personal life. Then I found out I was their first choice of applicant for University Of Cambridge, Department of Medicine placement! They helped me with the application and with interview prep.

It was my first-ever interview and as it was with Cambridge University, I was not expecting to get it. I was thinking it would be more of a learning experience so I was really pleased when I was offered the position! I am ever so thankful to the PDC and these special advisers!

What advice would you give to students or recent graduates wanting to work in a similar area?

The best place to start is to contact supervisors or people in the positions that you want to be in, to enquire what the role actually entails and how they got to where they are now. You can always ask if you can volunteer in that lab or if there are any roles available with that supervisor etc. Gaining relevant experience is the most valuable thing. Talking to your careers consultant or placement adviser is a great way to boost your applications, they can always be improved!

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