When life doesn’t go according to plan

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Annabel Ellis is in her third year of a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) majoring in Biology and completed a Summer Research Scholarship at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment during the Summer 2015/2016 holidays.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of being a scientist. Being the curious person that I am, I love the question-inducing and problem-solving nature of science. I distinctly remember the moment my parents explained to me what a zoologist was. For a seven year old, studying animals sounded like a pretty cool job, so it was added to the list: doctor, veterinarian, teacher and zoologist. By ten, my heart was set on being a biologist.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’; the question asked of all school children, inspiring imagination and dreams. As we get older, it morphs into something different; something less inspiring and more stress-inducing.

‘What’s your five/ten year plan?’; the question asked of all interviewees. But what if life doesn’t follow your plan?My five year plan looked something like this:

  • Finish high school: check.
  • Get into my first preference university course: check.
  • Do volunteer fieldwork in my first year holidays: check.
  • Receive a summer research scholarship in my second year holidays: …

When I received my first rejection letter, I didn’t know what to think. I’ve always been so certain of where I wanted my career to go, that when faced with a closed door, I questioned my entire life’s plan. Those more experienced than me chuckled at my naïveté, there were plenty more rejections to come.

After three rejected applications, my persistence (or stubbornness) finally payed off and I was lucky enough to receive a summer research scholarship in microbiology. A mixture of excitement and fear followed me into my first few days, learning so much new information and skills. As I became more familiar with the experimental techniques and laboratory, work settled into a routine.

My project was in microbiology, so most of the time I was in the laboratory culturing bacteria from koalas. Unfortunately, bacteria aren’t quite as cute and interactive as one of Australia’s most iconic species. Some days I longed to be outside in the beautiful Australian bush, away from the tedium of bacteria. However, when I listened to my supervisor explain the applications they hope their research will achieve, I was struck by how important those tedious moments in the laboratory were. When you’re stuck in life’s intricacies, it can be hard to see the big picture.

I had the privilege to go to a koala hospital and see the amazing work the staff and volunteers do in rehabilitating sick and injured koalas. Looking into the faces of these beautiful animals, I knew that, regardless of whether life follows my plan, I am living my childhood dream.

 

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Summer Holidays in the School of Chemistry

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Charlotte Fletcher is about to venture into her third year of a Bachelor of Science (Medicinal Chemistry and Neuroscience). After coming from a small town in NSW she has loved being a Wizzie in the big city.

One morning as I stumbled into an 8am chemistry lecture I sat next to a friend, slightly blurry eyed, when they whispered to me ‘hey, have you applied for a Summer Scholarship yet?’ I had heard of these, but hadn’t really looked into them. So that afternoon I sat in my window seat overlooking the Menzies Courtyard at Women’s and researched all about Summer Scholarships. I was amazed and completely sold about applying. There were so many areas to work in, with some amazing scientists doing innovative and developing research. To possibly be an undergraduate who had real world research experience was an opportunity too good to let pass by. After much encouragement and help from my wonderful college tutor, I began writing my application. I didn’t realise how difficult this task would be, and constantly asked myself why I was good enough to deserve this Scholarship? Upon much self-reflection, friendly advice and some serious editing, I handed my application in with enthusiasm and hope.

 

The project I ended up working on was investigating the link between neurodegeneration and heavy metal accumulation in various parts of the brain.

The Brain and Mind Research Institute was collaborating with The School of Chemistry, who in turn had to work with people at the Synchrotron, in both Australia and overseas. It was incredible to see how many people worked together to create ideas and then carry out research. Prior to my arrival the team had gathered X-Ray Fluorescence Microscopy images of brain sections from patients with MS to determine the elemental mapping and concentrations of metal within the brain. I learned how to use the program that generated images from the raw Synchrotron data that allowed for analysis. I also learned how to use a Fourier Transform Infrared Microscope, which is used to gather information about the organic composition of a sample by analysing the absorbance of infrared light. This technique was used to determine if the presence of metal and inorganic elements correlated with any changes in organic structure, such as proteins and lipids. As these two organic components are extremely vital in the human body, any changes would be seen as significant. I was very sad to leave this project, but I am looking forward to seeing what this exciting research discovers.

 

I am so happy that I applied to do a Summer Research Scholarship, and grateful that I got to work with a team of dedicated, incredibly intelligent and, most importantly, fun people. I learnt so much and am so thankful for the amazing opportunity, and would encourage anyone to apply for similar experiences. My six weeks has not only solidified my love for chemistry and neuroscience, but also my desire to enter the field of research. I can’t wait to see where this future leads.