Sensory neuroscience placement at the University of Sheffield | Case study

By Nuffield Foundation

Jenna Rose Clark’s sensory neuroscience placement alongside Professor Walter Marcotti at the University of Sheffield


Nuffield Research Placement student, 2019
University of Sheffield
Studying the transduction of sound in the mammalian ear.


Why did you apply for a Nuffield Research Placement?

For a while I have wanted to study biomedical sciences at university, however I have found it relatively challenging to find work experience or a placement that helps to showcase what the course has to offer. My school recommended applying for Nuffield as it had many options that could help to develop my interest in the course.

After reading what Nuffield had to offer, I applied in hopes that I would receive a placement similar to what would be involved within the course content at university, knowing that regardless of where I was based, I would be able to use the opportunity as a platform for my future studies.

What was your project about?

My project was based around what the department already research – the transduction of sound in the mammalian ear, as well as looking at similar structures on the lateral lines of fish to see how current is detected and how the fish respond.

For example, the department use specially bred mice that have particular mutations, and use structures (eg the cochlea) to see how substances such as calcium are transmitted around the neurones to see how they respond to particular frequencies. Similarly, young fish are used to see how they respond to a change in the current along the neuromasts (on the lateral line) to observe their behaviour in response.

Before starting the placement, I had a basic understanding of the biology and chemistry behind simple processes, such as DNA replication and microscope use. However, my knowledge around the subject of sensory neuroscience was minimal. After the first day when we were shown what the placement would entail, I did conduct research to ensure that I was not attending unprepared, and would be able to apply my new knowledge in more challenging environments around professionals.

Was the placement what you expected it to be?

No. I thought the placement would be incredibly challenging and thought that it would perhaps show me that I was working in the wrong direction and should be working towards a different goal.

However, working with the department on a daily basis showed me that this is exactly where I want to be, and where I should be pushing myself for the future. The department were so welcoming and so understanding that when I felt confused, I could always ask anyone around me for help, and that I wasn’t on my own, despite the independent research that was being executed.

I didn’t expect the experience to be so hands-on, however that was one of the many aspects that I loved about the placement. Everything that I was being shown, I was encouraged to perform myself so I had a deeper understanding as to what was going on. Many of the experiments were conducted numerous times, each time becoming more independent as I worked alongside my supervisor.

I was pleasantly surprised by the entire experience, and would love to follow in similar footsteps to many people within the biomedical sciences department at the University of Sheffield.”

How did your supervisor help you with your project?

My supervisor, Maria Pakendorf, was incredible. From day one, she ensured that I knew where to go if I ever needed anything, and made sure I felt welcome within the department.

Other than this, she guided me through the process which helped to construct my report smoothly, whilst always providing me with reading around the subject and extra work to do if I was ever ahead of the tasks.

Maria also provided me with her dissertation, telling me about her university experience and gave me some great advice when working towards where I hope to be.

Did you gain any new skills, both scientific and general work skills, from undertaking your placement?

100%! Working with professionals definitely improved my precision when carrying out experiments – being in the department introduced me to a range of new equipment (eg the pipettes) and showed me that experiments require time and patience in order to obtain results that are so specific and small-scale. It also taught me the importance of applying teamwork and independence in the right situations, to ensure that I understand what’s going on so I can help those around me.

I also learned how to work scientifically – cleaning the surface with ethanol every time you work, ensuring all of the equipment is clean and set to the right measurement, carrying out steps chronologically and reading up before executing anything.

Has your experience helped you to decide on a career path?

Without a doubt – before attending the placement, I was at a bit of a crossroads. I couldn’t decide between biochemistry, biomedical sciences or just biology. Having completed the placement, I can happily say that I am set on biomedical sciences.

There is not a single bad thing I could say about the placement, which has shown me that this is where I aspire to be in the future. I also spoke to many members of the department and asked for advice as to how I should approach the situation, given that many of the team members were in a similar position at one point too. I was encouraged to complete the placement to the best of my ability and see how I felt at the end; on my final day, I had an informal chat with Maria and expressed to her that this is exactly where I want to be in the future. I aspire to be carrying out my own research to see how I can help to add to the development of sciences and modern technology.

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

Give it everything you have – it’s a great experience to recap everything you have covered previously and what you put in, you will get out.

If you work hard, you will see results whether this is seen through what you obtain in experiments, or the enthusiasm in writing your report.

Similarly, ensure you make the most of the resources you have at the placement. Don’t forget you’re working with professionals that can give you the most relevant, helpful advice that you may not get from your teachers or parents. Let them show you what you will be experiencing if you choose to follow that particular path, and make the most of it because it is not an opportunity that everyone will get.

What are your future plans?

I hope to attend university to work towards a biomedical science degree, which I then hope to apply to a masters and then a PhD so that I can go on to conduct my own research.

Even if this doesn’t go to plan, I hope to be following a route that is closely linked to biomedical science, whether this be pharmaceutical or medical.

Finally, I hope to be in a career that I can progress in, and ensure that I am always working towards my next goal, so that when I look back I can see how far I’ve come and can reflect on it so that I can help those who were in a similar position to me.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.