Alex Pritchard

Why did you apply for a Nuffield Research Placement?

Nuffield placements were well established at my school, with two previous students having already taken part in the scheme. Therefore I was encouraged to apply as I have keen interest in medical research and wanted to gain valuable laboratory experience, which is usually hard to come by prior to university.

Was the work what you expected? 

I gained so much more than I expected from my placement, initially my work was based upon gaining insight into the causes and identification of Coeliac disease. However this was carried out mostly independently through provided literature and journals, whilst my time at the lab was spent gaining firsthand experience on carrying out various assays and tests using modern technology in Immunology. I was also given the opportunity to work in other sectors such as hematology, microbiology, cytopathology and attend a conference on tuberculosis testing with my supervisor.  This range of work enabled me to gain a broad understanding of the day to day workings, technological advances and current issues facing an NHS pathology department. I had no idea that I would be given the freedom to carry out such independent research on a chosen topic, enabling me to develop my microscopy and data analysis skills. As well as producing a report on my given title, I was able to present data and findings which suggested a novel way of detecting immunoglobulin deficiency at the first stage of Coeliac testing, making use of brand new technology recently installed in the lab, which could have a positive impact on both testing times and costs. 

How did your supervisor help you with your project?

My supervisors provided me with some of the necessary text books to research the basics of my project title, and then explained the more complex topics and mechanisms of immunology involved in the causes and identification of Coeliac disease. They were extremely supportive when I noticed the pattern in the data I had obtained from the test results and encouraged me to focus and incorporate this into a separate research project. My supervisors were so enthusiastic about their work and involving me in all aspects of it. They helped me to develop my scientific knowledge, laboratory skills and confidence, all of which have certainly been useful during my degree.

What was your project about?  Did you know much about the area before you started?

Originally my project title was ‘Looking into the causes and identification of Coeliac disease and comparisons of different antibody identification and the relationship with immunoglobulin deficiency’ however I decided to focus my research on the development of a new method of detecting IgA antibody deficiency linked to Coeliac disease diagnosis. I had a basic overview of Coeliac disease and other auto immune diseases before I started my project. What particularly interested me when reading about Coeliac disease, was the various problems/ obstacles involved in diagnosis. This gave me direction and enabled me to hypothesise when it came to my research.

Did you learn any new skills? Did this help you with your university applications?

A main focus of my placement was independent research which involved reading scientific papers and referencing which are major skills I have drawn upon at university. I improved my report writing, data inputting and analysis as well as learning many new clinical lab skills. Presenting my research at the Big Bang fair and as a participant of the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar has dramatically improved my public speaking and confidence when relaying a complex topic to different audiences. 

Did the work you did over the summer help you to decide what you want to do next?

After my project I went on to achieve a Gold CREST Award, and was chosen as a finalist for the National Science and Engineering Awards, where I was thrilled to win the Nuffield Foundation Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar Prize (SIYSS). My prize was a truly unique experience to represent the UK for youth science in Stockholm. I was able to present my work to fellow young scientists from around the world at a large seminar, visit major research centers at AstraZeneca and the Karolinska Institute, meet Nobel laureates and attend the Nobel Prizes and festivities in 2010. SIYSS was a great opportunity to network and I am still in contact with many of the other international participants. This weeklong event was a once in a life time experience, all thanks to the Nuffield Foundation. My placement and all that followed definitely enhanced my interest in biomedical sciences and research, so much so that I am now studying Biomedicine at university; I have also revisited the Big Bang fair, this time as a careers advisor. 

What are your future plans after university?

I am due to graduate with a BSc in Biomedicine in 2014; I am currently applying to study postgraduate medicine. I still have a keen interest in immunology and would consider potentially pursuing this as a future specialty.

What advice would you give to students applying for a Nuffield Research Placement?

I cannot emphasise enough how valuable a Nuffield Research Placement is, not only as a platform for CREST awards, the Big Bang Fair and SIYSS but also as a means of personal development, gaining early experience in a scientific environment, and learning skills sought after at university and professionally. Such placements really are opportunities not to be wasted, I can advise it is extremely important to make the most of your placement, show independence, enthusiasm and curiosity, ask plenty of questions and don’t be afraid to incorporate your own ideas.