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Hackney students get a taste of lab life

Year 12 students visit The Towers Lab at UCLThe Towers Lab at UCL has been working with Inspire! a lot this year – through their links with our Primary STEM programme, iDiscover, they generously offered to host work experience placements through us this year.

The lab, which specialises in immunology and virology, opened its doors to four Year 12 students from the Petchey Academy and City Academy, Hackney over the summer, giving them the chance to gain first-hand experience of a real, working laboratory.

We visited the lab to meet the City Academy students and find out how they’d been getting on. They had been given a project to manage over the course of their two-week placements, which involved manipulating DNA to make cells glow. “It was a big step up,” said Andi Fergusson, 17, “but everyone’s really helpful, they showed us how to use all the equipment”.

Andi and his fellow student on the placement, Duy-Anh Hinh, also 17, are both halfway through their A Levels and are currently making decisions about their university preferences. While both are considering a range of universities, they are certain about what they want to study: Duy-Anh is applying for Medicine courses, while Andi is keen to study Biochemistry and specialise in Infectious Disease later in his career.

During their placements, the lab staff gave the students advice on applying for university, helping them draft their personal statements and conducting mock panel interviews. Professor Greg Towers, who runs the lab, explains: “We sat them down with the clinicians, our clinical PhD students, and they went through the whole thing: this is how you write your personal statement, this is how you do your interview”.

Prior to their placements, neither student had experience of a professional environment, and both now had opinions on how all students could benefit from this kind of opportunity. Duy-Anh cited the chance to work independently, alongside professionals from a chosen field, while Andi suggested that work experience could act as a useful ‘trial run’ of a career before it was too late to change course.

Andi’s thoughts resonated with Jane Turner, Lab Manager at the Towers Lab: “I didn’t do work experience and I’m pretty sure if I’d been to something like this when I was younger I would have taken a far less circuitous route into what I’m doing now”.

Prof. Towers was also keen to point out that hosting work experience students provided a useful opportunity for lab staff to improve their communication and pitching skills. “If they can’t explain their project to someone else it’s largely because they don’t fully understand it themselves, so it’s a vehicle for them actually improving their own project and their perspective,” he explained.

While the two-week placements had not been without their teething problems, most likely due to the steep learning curve for the students, both Andi and Duy-Anh felt welcomed and supported in the lab, and were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to gain experience in such a prestigious environment. Prof. Towers also made the generous offer to them that he makes to all work experience students: “You know, they can stay in touch with us, it’s not just a two-week thing. They are part of the family, and when they go to university they can stay in touch – we’ll still be here”.

If you’re interested in hosting a work experience student, click here to find out more