Yep, we are living in challenging and extraordinary times. The COVID19 changes and dictates rules, but training of future health professionals is going on.
Within a fantastic RCSI summer training programme for medical students, our team ran essential practicals on the isolation of genetic material and the use of polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR, to detect differences in normal and modified genomic DNA.
Polymerase Chain Reaction, or simply PCR, was conceived and validated by biochemist Kary Mullis in 1983. This discovery revolutionised many scientific fields that dealt with genetic material and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993. PCR allows rapid generation of small identical fragments of DNA. The fragments can be visualised, their size and number can be calculated. It has become a standard procedure in molecular biology and pathobiology screening. The COVID19 PCR test is actually an advanced modification of Mullis’ invention.
All students successfully set up individual PCRs to our great satisfaction, and the results are presented at the right bottom corner.
If I was to write this 6 months ago, my life as a researcher would be very different.
Here is a little snippet of my ‘new normal’ day getting back into the lab as a 2nd year PhD student in the Cancer Bio-Engineering group post-lockdown.
Although, in general the day-to-day life as a scientist can vary massively. So I would like to say I already had a flexible schedule pre-pandemic. This made adapting to the world of our ‘new normal’ a little easier.
I commute to RCSI by Luas. I spend the morning carrying out my essential lab work in our new environment of 2-metre social distancing and face masks. Lunch is a little lonely these days with single tables in the previous busy 1784 restaurant. Although, RCSI’s campus is in the heart of Stephens green making it a fantastic location to stroll to the park for a coffee in between experimental incubation times. Great for catching the last of the summer sunshine! When all lab work is finished I come home to my new makeshift WFH office where I have a new furry work colleague to help me get through the evening data analysis and reading.
The research consists of days of highs and lows. Behind all the failures come successes making the hard work all worthwhile!
Each student is different. The best way to learn something is to experience it. Two months is a very short span as some experiments run for 3-6 months. But it gives a good taste on what research actually is. How different it is from CSI or Criminal Minds.
“Over the past two months, I had the privilege to work under my PI, Dr. Olga Piskareva and supervisor, Dr. John Nolan in the cancer genetics lab as a summer research student. My project was about gene expression of apoptotic genes as well as detecting apoptosis via flow cytometry in melanoma cell lines treated with chemotherapy agents and microRNAs. I had previous experiences in other research labs, but I have never learnt as much as I did in a span of two months! After this experience, I gained a better understanding of how cancer cells behave in different environments and also learnt to appreciate the difficulty of running a good experiment. Ever since my grandmother passed away due to cancer, I vowed to become a cancer researcher. This summer I have achieved this dream and hopefully continue to pursue my career as a physician-scientist!” Martin Liu
Exciting times ahead for my team – to study neuroblastoma – immune cells interaction. This 3 years project is funded by Neuroblastoma UK to support the interdisciplinary collaboration between experts in fields of neuroblastoma biology, immunology and tissue engineering from Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queen Mary University London.
Catherine will grow different neuroblastoma cells together with immune cells using a 3D printing technology. She will travel to Queen Mary University London and learn how to do 3D tumour bioprinting. This technology allows the generation of reproducible scaffolds that replicate the architecture of tumour tissues as seen in patients. She will use RCSI/AMBER facilities to optimise this model here and to study how immune cells recognise cancer cells, attack and eventually kill them. This experimental model will help us to advance current immunotherapies and develop more effective treatments for neuroblastoma.
I continue to share the meaning of research for non-science students. Zaki was a summer medical student in 2015.
“I am a final year Malaysian medical student studying at RCSI. I had the opportunity to join RCSI Research Summer School (RSS) by assisting in research with Cancer Genetics, Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics Department of RCSI. My mentor was Dr Olga Piskareva. My research project investigated the role of chromogranin A as a biomarker in drug-resistant neuroblastoma by analysing its expression in different neuroblastoma samples of murine models.
Frankly speaking, I had zero experience in clinical research (apart from basic science project I did at high school) before the placement started. The reading materials that Dr Piskareva handed to me felt like an alien language that had to be deciphered, let alone doing experiment with western blotting and ELISA. I remembered my first day at the lab, staring enthusiastically at every apparatus and machines but not knowing how to run them.
Fortunately, Dr Piskareva and other lab buddies were very experienced and helpful enough with my insufficiency. Their perseverance and willingness to share knowledge and tip built my confidence and understanding to finish my research project. I never had any difficulty to discuss and ask for help any time I needed it from them in the lab. They were also very warm and friendly not just inside the lab but also outside of the lab.
I felt like we were one big multinational family in one small lab. Imagine researchers coming from Russia, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands and myself from Malaysia working hand-in-hand, together. Over time, we bonded very close especially with our weekly breakfast getaway at Gerry’s and my friend Mei Rin and I even prepared our Malaysian cuisine for everyone in the lab in our last days. Even though most of my friends went home for the summer break, never did I felt lonely during my time in the lab. I am very grateful to have them in the lab and to call them my ‘keluarga’ (means family in Malay language).
After the research, I had the opportunity to do poster presentation at RCSI Research Day 2016 and International Conference for Healthcare and Medical Students (ICHAMS) 2016 at RCSI. These were great platforms for me to share my findings with other researchers. Above all, these were made possible with the help of Dr Piskareva and my lab buddies in preparing the poster and full report of the research. Additionally, the findings also provided me with extra information about neuroblastoma in line with my medicine study in paediatrics.
I would cherish every moment in the lab and indeed it was a very priceless experience. I would very much do it all over again in the lab if I had the chance because of the craving for knowledge and warmth of the lab buddies.