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Edinburgh Immunology EDI Summer School

Summer School students looking down microscopes
Students at the Edinburgh Immunology EDI Summer School.

The Edinburgh Immunology EDI Summer School was designed to better prepare university students for their final years of study by increasing their understanding of immunology and their sense of belonging. With funding from a BSI Equality, Diversity & Inclusion activity grant, this unique event took place at the start of September. Here, the organisers, Dr Jason Mooney, Dr Alan Hayes and Dr Patricia Castro, discuss what their goals were, how they made it happen, and reflect on the highlights and future lessons.

Attending university can be a wonderful experience, allowing students to embrace the unknown. It is a time to discover new and exciting ideas, as well as weed out topics that we dislike. However, for most students, it is accompanied by stress and anxiety, because, let’s be honest, navigating undergraduate school is difficult. Students often balance responsibilities at home with their studies. Some may have lost their support network as they move away from home, others might need to balance a part-time job. On top of this, there is the omnipresent dread of wondering ‘what am I going to do after?’. If we ask ourselves ‘How did I fall into STEM, and particularly immunology?’ I’m sure each one of us will come to a different answer. Did it choose you? (Was there a sorting hat?) Did you pick a course because you liked the tutor? Regardless of the answer, knowledge is the foundation we use to navigate our careers. For students, it shouldn’t be any different.

Every interaction, positive and negative, shapes the student experience helping them make informed decisions about their future. Students may not always be aware of what opportunities await them, and it’s often those who know where to look that can easily navigate through the storm. Therefore, equity in choosing a career in immunology requires space for every student to gain the knowledge and skills necessary, as well as to make connections, talk to people and be aware of what opportunities are out there. Stumbling from class to class and subject to subject may have worked for some of us, but to truly improve equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in immunology, we must make a concerted effort to share our knowledge and experience with the next generation.

Diversity and success in academia

The diversity of the student body continues to increase year on year. Factors such as ethnicity and socioeconomic background can have a large impact on students’ achievement. Recent reports have shown that students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups leave university with lower grades than their white peers. Students from deprived areas are also less likely to obtain a first or 2:1 than their peers.

Other factors such as sexual orientation, disability and other protected characteristics can have a negative impact if students do not feel comfortable and welcomed in the teaching environment. However, students who develop a sense of belonging and build effective relationships with other students and academic staff are more likely to succeed and achieve better outcomes.

Therefore, we wanted to create an event that not only has EDI at its heart, but that provides students the ability to develop their skill set, enhance their understanding of immunology and increase their sense of belonging, ultimately better preparing them for their final years of study.

It was very informative, allowed me to understand more about where my degree could take me and how to achieve this.

I enjoyed speaking to former honour students as it’s given me a better idea of what next year will be.

Lectures were incredible, the organisers were enthusiastic and helpful.

Creating an enhanced student experience

In Scotland, the summer of the second to third year is when students choose their honours subject, often presenting a challenging transition. Our goal was to create a weeklong summer school that showcased immunology, while also helping students to develop core skills and graduate attributes that will be important in their final two years. Following the EDI session at the 2022 BSI Congress in Liverpool, Dr Jason Mooney and Professor Gary Entrican talked about the new BSI Diversity & Inclusion Framework, and how we could make a tangible impact on our student body. Shortly after, Dr Alan Hayes, Dr Patricia Castro and Dr Mooney discussed ways to implement the framework locally to enhance the student experience, and the idea for the summer school was born.

First, we focused on providing a safe and welcoming space for students. We decided to hold the event in September, avoiding the need for students to travel to campus in the middle of their summer break. Interest was high, with 73 applicants leading to 30 students attending. For those unable to attend, sessions were recorded and made available online.

A programme to foster growth

To facilitate student learning, we designed a varied programme aimed at developing key graduate attributes, providing a peek into the immune system, an opportunity to develop skills and a space to build a community between the staff and students. The key sessions and their goals are highlighted in the table.

While the programme was devised to focus on student support and fostering growth within the undergraduate community, we decided that giving staff members opportunities for career development was equally important. Early career researchers (ECRs), much like our students, can often find it hard to source opportunities to develop their repertoire of skills. As postdocs, we often struggled to find opportunities for lecturing and tutoring, so we wanted to provide ECRs with the chance to participate in these types of activities, learn and practise new skills. Therefore, design and delivery of each session was handed over to researchers across the university, allowing us to not only empower the students, but the ECRs who drive forward our understanding of immunology.

Listening to students

To gauge impact, students filled out surveys before and after the event. Overall, most students found the sessions 'Useful' or 'Very useful' and felt much more comfortable about a variety of skills after the event. We were pleased to see that the three topics with which students felt less comfortable before the school, 'Careers within your discipline', 'Applying for studentships/jobs', and 'Emailing academic members of staff', showed a remarkable improvement after the sessions. Unexpectedly, lab math which we anticipated to be very useful, given our experience supervising Honours students during their projects in the lab (C1V1 = C2V2!), was rated as the least useful, with some students reporting no improvement in math skills. However, devil’s advocate, maybe maths at 10am was a poor choice? Regardless, we plan to use this feedback to change the way the session is delivered, to make sure it better prepares our students going forward.

Despite this, we are extremely pleased with the outcomes from the summer school. The students praised the efforts put into designing and delivering the sessions, while highlighting the benefit of the programme to their studies. We feel we have managed to empower students and to boost their confidence to begin carving out a career path.

Session Goal
Lectures Develop core immunology knowledge
Practicals Develop core laboratory skills (dissection, pipetting, microscopy and using python for analysis)
Lab math Improve math skills required in the lab (dilutions and concentrations)
Engaging with literature Develop skills to search and read scientific literature effectively
Roundtable with recent undergraduates Give students the opportunity to ask questions about third and fourth year to recent graduates and receive advice
Careers symposium Highlight the diversity of careers in immunology
Research studentships Provide information on funding, timelines, and ways to apply for summer internships

Lessons going forward

Designing and delivering the summer school has been a great journey and we have learned many lessons along the way. For instance, we would advertise the event prior to the summer break in an attempt to widen participation.

Further, we opted for a random allocation of spaces to limit the number attendees due to space and budget constraints. The demographics of participants who did attend was diverse, despite no selection method at recruitment. Going forward however, we would like to increase capacity to allow everyone who applies to join. If this is not possible, we plan to refine our selection process to ensure we are meeting our goals of enhancing learning and attainment for underrepresented populations. Lastly, we would also like to gain more input from students when designing the schedule and as such, we will invite former attendees to help shape subsequent years' activities. This will allow for a constant evolution of the programme and ensure it truly helps to promote EDI and immunology at the University of Edinburgh, while continuing to help prepare students for their final years at university and beyond.



Dr Jason Mooney, Dr Alan Hayes & Dr Patricia Castro