Inspiring the next generation of scientists

Sixth form students sample life in the lab

Student in the lab

“Everyone’s been so welcoming and kind, it’s been such a lovely experience.”

“This was an amazing programme… I learned so much about working in a lab and about research.”

A group of sixth form students are bubbling over with enthusiasm as they reflect on a week spent conducting experiments alongside world-class scientists who are trying to transform our understanding of human disease.

The students from across Cambridgeshire have chosen to spend their half term school holiday  immersed in the world of science thanks to the Inspiring Scientists programme, organised by two University of Cambridge research institutes, the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (CIMR) and the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit (MRC MBU). The two institutes share the same building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus - just over the road from Addenbrooke’s Hospital - and their directors Professors Julian Rayner and Judy Hirst work closely together, so it made perfect sense for the MRC MBU to partner with CIMR on the second year of this exciting scheme.

“This programme has been incredible…. I learned that in research nothing is impossible until you try.”

Student giving presentation

The students on the course have all been selected because, although talented in science and interested in research as a future career, they are from groups that have been shown to face barriers to accessing educational opportunities. The four-day programme devotes three days to sharing lab benches with Cambridge researchers and learning from leaders in their field during a series of seminars.

They’ve studied areas such as why fruit flies are so important in research, how different types of microscopy are used, and how the PCR tests we all got so familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic play an important part in almost every area of biomedical research. All their experiences culminated in a final day at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge – with the opportunity for the students to present what they learned to the rest of the group and the scientists who supported the programme.

Researcher with student

But first there’s a tour of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge - which just happens to be where the founder of Addenbrooke’s, John Addenbrooke, studied as a student and is buried. The college plays a key part in the programme, hosting the students on the final day but more importantly giving them an opportunity to hear directly from current science students about what undergraduate life is like – with the tour taking in student accommodation blocks, the dining hall, gym, music room, multi-faith prayer room and more. Schools Liaison and Outreach Officer Liza Zhabina gives a presentation packed full of advice on applying to Cambridge and then Holly Monkhouse from the CIMR advises students on how best to write their personal statements when applying to university.

Then, after lunch, it’s on to the presentations. There are a few nerves, but when it comes to their turn, each student delivers an accomplished and insightful presentation, with impeccable timekeeping.

Then there’s time for one-to-one mentoring with academic and college staff, with breakout groups according to the students’ specific interests.

“I hope it has been helpful and informative and maybe also helped bust a few myths,” Prof Rayner tells the students.

“You gave up your time when you could have been taking it easy, studying for exams, or anything else – and for that we are really grateful.”

“I hope you go into science, because it is an amazing career. What everybody wants to do is change the world and that is what scientists get to do.”

Prof Julian Rayner, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research

Prof Julian Rayner presenting

In their feedback, the researchers involved said how much of a pleasure it had been to host the visiting students in their labs, and how impressed everyone who interacted with them was by their level of understanding, their enthusiasm for knowledge, and the way they conducted themselves.

Pictures: Kat Steer and Penny Peck

Published: 07 March 2023

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License