Sethu Jayakumar, a student from Chelmsford County High School in Essex, spent 4 weeks working at the Royal Free Hospital with Dr Emma Derrett-Smith looking into the uses of chemical messengers in the disease scleroderma. Sethu recently exhibited her project at the Big Bang Fair in London.
How did you get involved in the Nuffield Research Placements Programme and why did you want to take part in the programme?
I applied through my school; I was the first one to ever do so. I wanted to take part in the programme for a variety of reasons - I had never done research before, and thought it would be really intellectually stimulating as well as an amazing way to spend my summer. It seemed like a really unique opportunity, and a chance for me to be active, whereas most work experience I'd done previously had involved a lot of shadowing.
What were the aims of your project, and how did you go about achieving these?
I worked at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead with the Rheumatology department to investigate the use of IL-6, a chemical messenger in the body, as a biomarker for scleroderma. The purpose of my project was to establish if the chemical IL-6 could be used as a biomarker in order to detect scleroderma. We went about achieving this by testing IL-6 levels in skin samples from people both with and without the disease, using a variety of methods such as a polymerase chain reaction, Western blottings and immunohistochemistry.
What did you learn most from your placement experience?
Being exposed to a scientific laboratory and getting to work with research scientists for the first time was definitely rewarding, because I gained a new and informed awareness of the level of dedication, knowledge and commitment that a research project entails. Doing the Nuffield Research Placement was definitely one of the best things I have ever done. Everyone was incredibly accommodating and friendly – disproving the misconception that scientists are workaholics who never leave the lab – and although my project was mentally challenging, it did not feel like work because I enjoyed it so much.
How have you shared your placement experience with others at school?
I did a presentation to my peers at my school's Chemistry Society and actively encouraged those in the year below me to apply. I also talked about it at my school's Medical Society, of which I was Co-President at the time.
What are your longer term plans and how did your placement experience affect these plans?
Before doing my project I had never considered doing medical research. I hope to study medicine at university, but speaking to some of the consultants at the Royal Free helped me realise that you can be both a clinician and a researcher, which I think illustrates how many opportunities working in science gives you. One of the many benefits of working in the Royal Free was that not only did I get to work in a lab, but I was also able to observe specialist outpatient clinics, where I could see the effects of scleroderma first-hand. I think working on a disease whilst being able to see that disease in real life was fascinating and added a completely new dimension to my project. It also helped me truly understand the importance of scientific research, especially in a constantly evolving field such as medicine.
What was it like exhibiting at the Big Bang Fair?
Exhibiting at the Big Bang was truly an unforgettable and once-in-a-lifetime experience. To have my work honoured amongst some of the nation's best young scientists was so humbling and inspiring. I also got to talk to a lot of other scientists and got to do some really fun activities. It was definitely a lovely experience to be able to present your work to both other scientists and the public and demonstrate your passion for something you truly care about. I also made some great friends!