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Inspiring the next generation

Published: 12 Dec 2018
Category:
By Aileen King

Work experience for school pupils is no longer mandatory but in many schools it is highly encouraged. Whilst shadowing an individual researcher can be useful to gain an insight into the daily workings of a research laboratory, the opportunity to carry out experiments may be limited. This is understandable as researchers may be reluctant or unable to allow inexperienced pupils to become actively involved in their experiments. Thus laboratory work experience for school pupils often involves observation of science rather than practical experience.

We have been running work experience weeks at the Diabetes Department at King’s College London for the last ten years. The format of the week has evolved over the years to optimise the experience for both the pupils and for members of staff. We have recently been awarded an engagement grant from the British Pharmacological Society to provide high quality hands-on work experience. We have focussed on a hands-on work experience week, where different members of staff dedicate a few hours each to supervise pupils in carrying out experiments. We accept several pupils at once (up to 12) and ask several researchers to commit to only a few hours per year within a specific week. The pupils enjoy peer support and find the experience more interesting as they can do experiments themselves and the staff find that their time is more efficiently used in comparison to a single pupil shadowing them for a week.

Pupils have been recruited through a variety of different avenues. Initially personal contacts at King’s College London were one of the main sources of pupils. However, we strived to reach pupils who did not have personal contacts within an academic setting. In the past five years we have reached out to various comprehensive schools in South London and Kent. We are particularly keen to accept pupils who have written emails without any personal or teacher contact at all. One pupil this year had sent 53 emails to academic researchers to find a work experience placement. Her email was wellwritten and polite with a good CV attached, but she got no response at all in 90% of cases. This underlines the difficulties of pupils with no contacts in gaining a good work experience placement.

Our model of work experience

Pupils are supervised by students and staff at varying stages of their career. The staff leading the experimental sessions include PhD students, technicians, postdocs and lecturers with the pupils supervised by at least 14 different members of staff. This enables the pupils to learn about different routes into a scientific career and different jobs within academia. They carry out a variety of techniques which we routinely use in our laboratory ranging from Polymerase Chain Reaction to dissection. We also arrange an informal “question and answer” session led by undergraduate students. This is a popular session as the students are usually only about three-four years older than the pupils and can give valuable advice on what it’s really like to study at university and put them at ease regarding some of their worries.

Exposing pupils to in vivo work

King’s College London is a signatory of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. We therefore think it is important to be completely open with our work experience pupils regarding our in vivo work. We give the pupils a tour of the animal facility and afterwards hold an ethics discussion about using animals in research.

We were keen for the students to understand the context of different techniques and thus the main experiment of the week is to dissect a tissue of their choice from a mouse and then histologically process it over the next few days to enable them to image the tissue by the end of the week. This allows them to understand how it can take several days to carry out an experiment but also keeps them engaged throughout the process as it is “their” tissue.

The dissection part of the work experience is voluntary and it is made clear to the pupils that they do not need to participate. Interestingly we have had around 50 work experience students in the past five years and all of them chose to participate. We time the dissection so that animals are killed for research purposes and after the researchers have taken their tissue of choice (often the pancreas in our case) the pupils can dissect out all other tissues. They each choose two or three tissues to process, which typically as a group includes kidneys, livers, brain, heart, skin. The pupils often rate the experience as the best part of the week. They carry out the full histological process on their tissues of choice including wax embedding, sectioning (under one-toone supervision), staining and imaging. At the end of the week the students present their histological images to the rest of the group, pointing out any morphological features of interest. Many are keen to keep the images to show their teachers.

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About the author

Aileen King obtained a PhD at Uppsala University, Sweden before carrying out postdoctoral studies at Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston. In 2006 she started at King’s College London as an RCUK academic fellow, co-funded by the British Pharmacology Society Integrative Pharmacology Fund, before progressing on to senior lecturer in Pharmacology. Aileen’s research focusses on animal models of diabetes and islet transplantation therapies. Her undergraduate teaching focusses on integrative pharmacology and physiology. She runs a second year in vivo-based module which is partially funded by the British Pharmacology Society.