James Bedford completed his Nuffield Research Placement in 2015 at Biovault Technical. He has accepted a place at Harvard University.
What was your project about?
Haematopoietic stem cells are used for a multitude of current treatments from gene therapy to tissue regrowth and cancer treatments. My research provider was a leading cryogenic biobanking company which freezes umbilical cord stem cells taken at birth for up to 30 years to provide the potential for future stem cell treatments using stem cells taken from the patient’s very own umbilical cord. My project was all about finding a correlation between the health of recovered haematopoietic stem cells and various birth factors which may affect the health of these stem cells. The presence of certain biological markers on the stem cells can be used, along with the frequency and viability of the stem cells, in order to confidently predict the future success of treatment involving the frozen stem cells. The hope of the project was that, by determining whether there was a general relationship between stem cell health and factors such as maternal age, birth weight and gestation period, the stem cell bank could more comprehensively advise clients about the chances of their stem cells being viable for future treatments after freezing.
What was the highlight/best bit of your placement?
The best part of my placement was definitely the first time that I went into the atmosphere-controlled grade B cleanrooms. I had to get dressed head-to-toe in 3 layers of sterile biohazard suit before going into the lab to help prepare it for stem cell retrieval. Compared to secondary school science, the experience was utterly alien but it was both fascinating and exciting to be working in a medical lab and be trusted to help out!
What was your least favourite part of the placement?
It’s true to say not all parts of the placement were so glamorous; there were a few tedious hours after I’d finished working or writing my report where stock-checks of hundreds of different pieces of equipment from syringes to plastic gloves had to be taken. Having said that, it was still interesting to see all of the different bizarre tools that were used in the biobanking process.
What path did you take after finishing your NRP and how has that led you to where you are today?
After finishing my NRP and my research report, I was awarded a Gold CREST award for my research which was both humbling and inspired me to pursue the field further. After that, I got stuck back into my IB course and found that, having spent the summer doing my placement, I was now far more switched-on to my higher-level biology classes and the NRP really inspired me to research further around areas of my course out of new-found intrigue and curiosity.
If you could give one piece of advice to Nuffield students about to start a placement what would it be?
I was really afraid of breaking some thousand-pound piece of state-of-the-art equipment and remember being particularly nervous around the staff and my supervisor at the start of my placement but the key is really not to worry but, equally, not to switch-off. It’s really important to be alert and attentive all the time, partly because you’ll be unfamiliar with most of the places and equipment that you’re working with and partly because there is genuinely something to be learned from everything and everyone you’ll work with.
What would your advice be to young people thinking about a career in STEM?
For me, a career in STEM is a no-brainer. It’s tough to find any other career where there’s not only so much happening and so many exciting breakthroughs and advances being made every single day, but also the opportunity and potential for you to go out, as an individual, and make a real, meaningful impact on the world.