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A Scottish summer crammed with festivals, fun and lab work!

Each year, the British Society for Immunology (BSI) offers a number of grants through our Medical Elective and Summer Placement Award Scheme (MESPAS) to medical and postgraduate students who are planning to undertake a formal placement for their medical elective or for a summer placement. Here, Radhwan Al-Zidan, a pharmacist from Iraq and one of the 2016 recipients of this grant, discusses his placement and what he gained from the experience.

Radwan Al-Zidan

Funding from the BSI has allowed me to spend part of my summer involved in exciting and innovative research being carried out at Edinburgh Napier University. In addition to science, it has also allowed me to experience and enjoy the Scottish summer, such as it is! Whilst 12 weeks might not seem like a long period, it has been such an exciting and busy time for me I can barely see how I fitted it all in.

To start here is a glimpse into my story

I am a pharmacist from Iraq; whilst working as a hospital-based pharmacist, I developed an interest in research science. This interest and my belief that bridging the bench-to-bedside gap will require closer integration between biologists and those with a pharmaceutical and clinical background encouraged me to redirect my career path and found me based in the research labs at the College of Pharmacy at Mosul University. Seeking to expand my possibilities, I applied for and was awarded funding from my own government to travel to and study for a Masters in the UK. I chose Edinburgh Napier University because of their unique course in Medical Biotechnology, which has a strong focus on research. This course helped me, as a pharmacist, to find common ground with the biological scientists in the lab.

Finding a passion

During my Masters, I found myself drawn to and engaged by areas of immunology, particularly the evolving field of adoptive cell therapy.  I was excited to have the opportunity of working on a cutting-edge gene therapy-based project under the supervision of Dr Graham Wright. The project involved the transfer of genes aimed to direct and enhance the function of therapeutic regulatory T cells to treat autoimmune disease.  I thoroughly enjoyed the seven weeks I had in Dr Wright’s lab but felt so much more could be achieved with more time. With the encouragement of my supervisor, I applied for funding through the BSI’s MESPAS scheme and was genuinely thrilled when the BSI made it possible for me to spend more time working on a project that fascinated me in a city that I was just starting to understand.

My time in the lab

With all the postdocs and PhD students working in one place, the labs at Edinburgh Napier are a hive of activity around the clock. Making the most of my time, I spent long hours in the lab; this helped me to fit in quickly and get to know my colleagues well. Edinburgh Napier is a fascinating place to work; unlike larger institutes the disparate areas of biological science are grouped together, giving me a good insight into a broad range of interesting and diverse projects. Despite spending long hours in the lab, I took the opportunity to visit my favourite spots in Edinburgh such as Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, and the National Museum of Scotland, as well as Portobello beach – on occasional sunny days! Edinburgh has been a home away from home for me and bears many similarities to my home city of Mosul. Whilst Mosul now faces different challenges, at different times it is a vibrant and exciting city, just like Edinburgh. Similar to Edinburgh it is also steeped in history and beauty, with famous historical sites that are more than 5,000 years old and beautiful landscapes surrounding the Tigris River.

What did I get from the summer placement?

Having been excited by the potential of retroviral gene transfer as a therapeutic, it has been a fascinating opportunity to get to grips with the various processes in the lab; particularly more recently when I have spent time working independently to optimise the process in various cell subsets. After a series of experiments, I was thrilled to be able to show that my optimisations achieved significantly higher gene transfer efficiency.

In addition to making a lasting contribution to the research taking place in Dr Wright’s lab, I also had the opportunity to gain familiarity with a number of exciting experimental techniques through shadowing other lab members. I have learned techniques from flow cytometry to the state-of-the-art confocal microscopy, as well as many other essential cellular and molecular immunology techniques. I have also gained a better feel for the daily work of a lab scientist, from planning experiments to troubleshooting problems. I believe the personal and technical experience I have gained during this placement will boost my chances to achieve my next goal of doing the PhD in the increasingly important field of immunotherapy.

Finally, as a new member of the BSI, I would like to wish a happy 60th anniversary to our fabulous society.

Radhwan Al-Zidan, Edinburgh Napier University, UK

Image credit: (C) Radhwan Al-Zidan