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BSI Summer Placement: building skills in Australia

PhD student Fane Mensah received a British Society for Immunology Summer Placement Award to fund his placement at the University of Melbourne.  Here, he discusses his placement and tells us what he gained from the experience.

Fane Mensah with Dr Christopher Armstrong

As part of an international collaboration with the Bio21 Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia, I had the amazing opportunity to spend five weeks in the research group of Professor Paul Gooley and Dr Christopher Armstrong. The group has their expertise in metabolism, where they have been developing metabolomic methods for studying different conditions and diseases, with a focus on myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). ME/CFS is a condition characterised by fatigue and post-exertional malaise after mental or physical exertion. The onset of symptoms is often linked to acute infections, particularly with Epstein-Barr virus, which primarily targets B cells.

The aim of our joint project was to study the chemical processes that occur during B cell maturation upon in vitro stimulation by studying the conversion of building blocks (metabolites) in culture medium to energy, along with the production of ‘waste’ metabolites. As an immunologist, this was a great chance for me to work interdisciplinary between the fields of metabolism and immunology. Both fields have been the centre of attention in understanding the aetiology and pathogenesis of ME/CFS.

Supported by the BSI Summer Placement Award, I believe my international placement benefitted me so much more than I could have expected and is definitely something I will never forget.

The main purpose of my stay was to analyse and discuss the data we have produced during our collaboration and gain further knowledge about metabolism and the processes involved. During my time in Melbourne, I learnt how to determine metabolite concentrations from raw nuclear magnetic resonance spectra and how to use the analytical workflows to interpret data. Along with changes in immune cell surface markers, we would be able to correlate changes in metabolites with B cell maturation in vitro.

Fane at the NMR facility

I believe that placements and international collaborations are very important for early career scientists. It is not just beneficial to learn new skills and techniques, but it also allows you to reflect on your work and be challenged by questions of others in your field and beyond. It is also a great way to share your expertise, and experience different work environments, cultures and countries. For these exact reasons, gaining international experience was so important to me. It adds up to your ‘experience package’ not only as a scientist but also as a person.  

Regarding the different culture ‘down under’, I was very surprised by how approachable Australian scientists were. They have been very welcoming. This made it easy for me to collaborate, build new relationships and discuss the research. It was great to see how interested colleagues were in my work, which was very encouraging. Obviously, the great weather and outstanding resources makes working in Australia a very pleasant experience too!

During my time there, I did not just spend time in the lab, but I also had the opportunity to do some science communication work. I was invited to join a panel discussion about ME/CFS, attended a radio interview with my colleague and, probably one of the highlights of my trip, met with Australian government parliamentarians. This experience was so unique because it was something I have never done before. The purpose of the meeting was to update parliament about the ongoing research in the field of ME/CFS and to encourage them to support Australian research in terms of funding and resources.

Science communication is so important for early career scientists, a fact which probably needs more attention, as well as practice and hands-on experience for the individual. It, therefore, came in handy that I have previously completed a BSI media training course, which did really help me communicate my science to a broader audience.

Visiting Australia was such a special experience, the country is completely different from what we are used to here in Europe or in the US. Different landscapes, different animals, different cultures and not to forget the constant sunshine! I have met some very inspiring people, saw the amazing scenery and enjoyed delicious food in Melbourne. Supported by the BSI Summer Placement Award, I believe my international placement benefitted me so much more than I could have expected and is definitely something I will never forget. If the possibility and opportunities are there I would recommend any PhD student to get some experience abroad! 

Fane Mensah
Third year PhD student, University College London

Our Summer Placement Award Scheme provides financial support to medical and postgraduate students who are planning to undertake a formal placement in a selected laboratory for their medical elective or for a summer placement. You can find out more information on our grants webpage