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Through the eyes of a young pharmacologist: The value of internships and work experience

Published: 12 Sep 2017 in Society news

Written by Young Pharmacologists Advisory Group members: Dr Ross King, Laura Humphrys, Sam Groom, Dr Joanna Clarke and Vedia Can.

The Society’s published report from PwC shows that pharmacology is alive and well in the UK higher education sector, and that graduates go on to a wide range of successful careers. The PwC report also points to the value of internships and work experience and our young pharmacologists agree.

For many aspiring young scientists, getting a foot in the door of a living, breathing and productive laboratory is often the first step on the long road to research independence. Undertaking internships at home, abroad or in industry demonstrates clear commitment and drive, whilst also equipping students with the essential practical skills and mental attributes needed to make the most of the challenging (but rewarding) career at the bench and beyond. In this article, The Young Pharmacologists Advisory Group explores some of the options available to our student members and reflects on the experiences of those who have benefited from a diverse range of internship positions.

Whilst many bioscience courses offered by universities rightly include a focus on practical learning, typically offering 3-9 hours of laboratory time each week, this prescribed programme of teaching is often far-removed from the true nature of the scientific method. Science at its heart is an expression of curiosity and creativity; undertaking a laboratory internship allows students to exercise these assets by using their previous learning to solve common lab problems, outside the confines of practical demonstrations.

Ross King, a member of the Young Pharmacologists Advisory Group (YPAG) and now postdoctoral researcher at The William Harvey Institute recalls his first taste of real research through his undergraduate summer research studentship at The University of Glasgow:

“I remember being terrified of approaching ‘real scientists’ for a placement, thinking they would never be interested in hand-holding a complete novice for an entire eight weeks. In reality, I received one polite ‘no thanks’ before an academic suggested I apply for support from The Nuffield Foundation, which was accepted. It was initially a daunting experience, but I quickly gained confidence in my own practical and analytical abilities. Looking back, this experience, coupled with that of my undergraduate dissertation, definitely gave me the edge over my peers when applying for PhD studentships.”

The best advice for students looking for internships at this stage of their career is to be bold - the worst that can happen is someone saying ‘no’. Most academics will be impressed (and maybe even a little flattered) that you've taken an interest in their work. When it comes to working in a lab, nobody expects perfection - there is only the expectation that you apply yourself with enthusiasm into your work. Undergraduate students can be an invaluable resource to laboratories over the quieter summer months to keep essential projects bubbling over. Having said that, nobody, no matter how much experience they may or may not have, should have to work for free. A good place to start to investigate funding options for short research projects is The Royal Society of Biology website. However, paid schemes are usually limited and young researchers may have to work for shorter, unpaid periods in order to secure highly sought-after experience.

Some students may set their sights slightly further afield. Laura Humphrys is one of the newest YPAG members, and a current recipient of the AJ Clark Studentship from the British Pharmacological Society. Laura thinks that her willingness to step outside her comfort zone and take part in the Universitas 21 exchange scheme as part of her integrated masters course is what helped her become an attractive PhD candidate. Most universities offer international exchange programmes and students who are looking to develop their research skills whilst also seeking to expand their cultural horizons should investigate these options.

Of course, aside from internship positions within academia, a wealth of distinct experiences can be gained from training in industry. Sam Groom is one of the British Pharmacological Society’s newest AJ Clark students and spent his placement at Heptares Therapeutics. Sam told us that being part of an industrial rather than an academic grouping gave him a distinct perspective on research at such a formative stage of his career:

“My attitudes towards scientific research were changed through my placement, with industry’s principles of rigour, cooperation and professionalism integrating with my own ethos. Another benefit was receiving a salary for my work, giving me a taste of what a professional career in science might be like.”

Sam’s hard work, growing confidence and improved scientific communication skills from working within an industrial environment led him to present some of his work at Pharmacology 2016, an experience that he highly recommends to other placement students - both experiences strengthened his application for his current studentship.

In addition to these programmes geared at earlier-career researchers, the British Pharmacological Society provides financial support through the Schachter Award for postgraduate members to visit another laboratory to learn a new technique that cannot be conducted at their home institute and to further develop their mental and emotional skillsets. Joanna Clarke, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool and recent recipient of The Schachter Award, deftly used her funding to further her investigations in both the industrial and academic sectors. Here’s what Joanna had to say about her experience:

“The Schachter Award has not only improved my experimental knowledge and enabled me to attain valuable and novel data, but additionally these placements have given me a very useful insight into alternative research settings. At NovartisInternational AG, a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company based in Basel, Switzerland, I was able to gain insight into the pharmaceutical industry, and my time at The University of Zurich gave me a flavour of how things are done in another academic department and indeed another country. Both experiences gave me the opportunity to develop new professional connections, and the chance to work independently and abroad has definitely boosted my self-confidence.”

The resources for young scientists to gain coveted laboratory internships in a diverse range of academic and industrial research environments are out there. Students should take a bold, proactive approach to seeking these out, in order to bolster their CVs and put them ahead of their peers in an increasingly competitive scientific job market. Grabbing the proverbial research bull by the horns for the first time can be an intimidating experience, but one that may enrich your essential practical skills and help open exciting doors in your future career.

Top tips

  • Be bold and ask!
  • Throw yourself into the work
  • Talk about money – can you arrange payment or funding?
  • Step outside your comfort zone
  • Use networks through the Society
  • Have a growth mind-set – you’re there to learn & develop
  • Keep in touch afterwards
  • Use it to find out if you’d enjoy a career at the bench