Laboratory in the Exeter Biocatalysis Centre.

Biosciences hosts high-calibre summer students

This summer, university students from Exeter and other UK and international universities are conducting research in the Biosciences department at the University of Exeter, tackling complex problems in cell biology, physiology, ecology and evolution.

The students are spending anywhere from 5 weeks to 3 months developing their laboratory skills, answering questions such as how parasites of toads and frogs have evolved, and what are the genetic regulators of menopause, using zebrafish as a model organism. The students are working alongside top researchers at the University of Exeter, and their funding comes from a range of sources including various government agencies, societies, charities and non-governmental organisations.

Many of the students are using this experience as an opportunity to decide whether they would like to progress to a scientific career, whilst also earning money during the summer. Alex Cook, who is working in Professor Ken Haynes lab, said of the experience: “It allowed me to work independently, which you don’t get to do as much in the teaching labs. I’ve been able to guide my own project a lot more.”

Alex will also be benefitting from this experience as his final year project at the university will be in the same research group, and using similar techniques; he chose these projects due to his interest in disease-causing pathogens, such as the fungal organisms he is studying.

When asked why they chose Exeter for their projects, many students mentioned the university’s reputation for high-class research. Lily Bishop, who is researching how the components of the cell wall surrounding bacterial cells – the capsule – are built, was one of these students: “I chose to do a summer placement at the University of Exeter Biocatalysis research lab primarily because I found on the internet that it specialises in infection and diseases. These are my main interests and I have chosen the majority of my modules for my final year at UCL to be immunology-based, so this will provide me with an up-to-date lesson on the topics I will study next year.”

Lily, and many other students, also emphasised that the experience of laboratory techniques (both basic and specialist methods) that they are learning would make them more comfortable and confident going into their final year laboratory projects.

Many students find it surprising, but their work is often used as the basis for future major projects and some even find that they are included as authors on scientific articles – an impressive achievement which will greatly enhance their career prospects, whilst also providing critical pilot results which benefit the researchers at the University.

The table below summarises some of the projects on offer this year:

StudentSupervisorProjectFunding agency
Corey Holt Mark van der Giezen Producing an encystation-deficient Entamoeba Wellcome Trust
Lauren Porter Eduarda Santos Zebrafish as a model organism to investigate the genetic regulators of early menopause in humans Wellcome Trust
John Harding Jamie Stevens Evolution of parasitism in blowflies Genetics Society
Melanie Pickett John Love Synergistic relationships between algae and bacteria commonly found in clarified effluents University of Exeter and University of South Florida
Natasha Schvezov Mauricio Urbina Foneron & Rod Wilson Consequences of feeding for oxidative stress in fish Government of Argentina (CONICET)
Katie Jones Tom Richards How does the green paramecium live in harmony with its algae? Nuffield Foundation
Josh Cowper Sarah Gurr Surface sensing drives infection in Septoria Leaf Blotch Infections British Society for Plant Pathology
Fiona Birch Steve Simpson Mechanisms of impact of pile-driving noise on important fisheries and aquaculture species Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Jessica Lister Steve Simpson Ultimate and proximate response of flatfish and crustaceans to anthropogenic noise Fisheries Society of the British Isles
Alexander Cook Ken Haynes Characterisation of the combinatorial stress response in the pathogenic yeast Candida glabrata Various sources
Lily Bishop Nicholas Harmer Investigating the substrate specificity of capsular polysaccharide biosynthesis Biochemical Society

Date: 21 July 2014

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