Each year, the British Society for Immunology offers a number of grants through our Medical Elective and Summer Placement Award Scheme to medical and postgraduate students who are planning to undertake a formal placement for their medical elective or for a summer placement. Here, Mrinalini Dey, one of the 2015 recipients of this grant, discusses her placement and what she gained from the experience.
I am a final year medical student from the University of Cambridge, and I recently completed a four-week elective at the Centre for Life Sciences (CeLS) at the National University of Singapore. I was based in the Immunology Programme, working on a project that aimed to derive the human antibody repertoire against Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and, in the longer term, test this antibody repertoire for auto-reactive binding in cells and tissues derived from patients with lupus. Working under the supervision of Professor Paul MacAry, and alongside two PhD students and a trainee paediatric immunologist, I was involved in optimising a neutralisation and infection assay, using techniques including cell culture, Western blotting and flow cytometry, the last of which was completely new for me. I really appreciated this opportunity to improve my lab skills, which will hopefully prove useful in future research I undertake. I was very fortunate in my group, who warmly welcomed me to the team and helped to increase my enthusiasm for immunology and academic medicine. Working closely with a trainee paediatrician was especially encouraging, as she was a daily reminder of what life as a clinician scientist may entail.
Time spent in clinic
To contextualise my work in the laboratory, I spent a few days in the nearby National University Hospital (NUH), in the departments of rheumatology and infectious diseases. I was fortunate to be able to attend the country-wide infectious diseases meeting. I was in Singapore at the height of the dengue season, so this was naturally a major topic of discussion, as well as an outbreak of Group B Streptococcus. Additionally, I spent time in an infectious diseases clinic, which allowed me to see presentations of diseases I would not likely come across in the UK, such as meliodosis.
I also attended rheumatology clinics, where I could see patients with such diagnoses as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. This helped me to contextualise my work linking EBV and lupus and the effect that rapid diagnosis and treatment can have on patients’ lives.
A country in celebration
I was lucky to be in Singapore during its celebrations of 50 years of independence; you could not escape the bold, red ‘SG50’ logo stamped everywhere and the sense of national pride. The memory of watching the National Day parade at the packed Marina Bay (and the equally claustrophobic journey home) will stay with me forever. The country generally has an innate ability to impress, with swathes of greenery sitting effortlessly alongside modern skyscrapers. Stories of Singapore’s success and rapid growth were everywhere in the media and museums, highlighting a real sense of hard work and determination to progress, something that was certainly reflected in NUH and CeLS. As a medical student, it was interesting to compare and contrast the health systems in Singapore and the UK, which are quite different in terms of their approach to training, as well as the structure of patient care.
I ended my elective by learning how to extract peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from blood, made all the more exciting by the fact that they were mine – whilst having a severe nut allergy is not ideal for making the most of Singapore’s exceptional cuisine, it does make you an ideal target for your fellow immunology researchers! I was glad to have the opportunity to learn this technique, since it was an integral part of my original project, and a skill I had hoped to gain during my placement. It was an enjoyable and productive end to an academically and culturally enriching four weeks.
The benefits of a summer placement
This placement far exceeded my objectives and expectations – being placed predominantly at the ‘bench’ with some time spent at the ‘bedside’, I saw the benefit of having a skillset that spans both. The privilege of working with individuals who were keen for me to be as passionate as they were about their subject was inspirational. The enthusiasm and guidance of colleagues ensured I could learn and utilise knowledge and techniques quickly to make the most of my time in the lab, and I hope I am able to return in future to further contribute to this work.
I am incredibly grateful to everyone with whom I worked during these four weeks, as well as the British Society for Immunology for their award. My enthusiasm for research in immunology has most certainly increased, and I am confident that my elective experience will have a positive impact on my future practice.
Mrinalini Dey, Final year medical student, University of Cambridge
Image credits: © M. Dey