Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Nathan is a final year science student majoring in Pathology and aspires to study medicine. In his spare time he loves playing cricket.

What exactly does research entail? I thought I would find out by diving straight into it and doing an undergraduate research subject. After 10 weeks in the lab, I’ve learnt a lot about what it’s actually like!

I had the opportunity to undertake a research subject (PATH30004) as an elective for my major in Pathology. This subject is said to be like a mini honours year and from what I’ve experienced, it’s exactly that. We were all given a list of projects, ranging from the field in Alzheimer’s disease to cardiovascular disease, which were on offer in research laboratories throughout Melbourne (such as Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Baker IDI, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the university’s own Department of Pathology). We were also given a choice of either laboratory or library based research. All projects are done under the guidance of supervisors, who take you under their wing and show you what needs to be done and how to go about doing it.

I was fortunate enough to get my preferred project at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre looking at cancer predisposing genes.

Image: meme
Image: memegenerator.net

What I’ve actually been doing

My project involves investigating two genes that are suspected to be associated with familial breast cancer, which I’ve been investigating through a variety of molecular biology techniques. This requires me to go through a vast array of DNA samples, collected from donor patient throughout Melbourne, examining for the presence of mutations in these genes.

The majority of my time in the lab is spent designing experiments, pipetting and waiting for experiments to run, with the remainder of my time being spent interpreting data with my supervisor. Initially it took me quite a while to get through a set of samples allocated to me (around 900 per week), with mistakes plaguing me at every step.

Image: sciencenonfiction.org
Image: sciencenonfiction.org

In the first week I struggled to get the hand of everything, such as keeping everything extremely clean and sterile. However with due time, I learnt how to get everything done without any mistakes, and soon enough I was even able to teach some work experience students from high school how to do some minor things.

I was originally timetabled to be in the laboratory from 9am till 3pm every Friday throughout the semester, however the scope of my project slowly expanded and with it my time at the lab blew up to around 20 hours per week. This made it very difficult to manage my work with my other subjects, however I eventually learnt how to manage time like a boss; something I wish I’d learnt earlier in my degree.

Image: memegenerator.net
Image: memegenerator.net

What’s great about this subject is the level of independence given to you throughout the lab. You become entrusted with very expensive samples and reagents and even more expensive equipment to use freely. You also have the opportunity to see very exciting things that other researchers are working on as well. However, the greatest aspect of this subject is that you can be included in a publication, granted your work contributes towards something your supervisor plans on publishing.

How am I assessed?

There is no exam for the subject which is great! No one likes exams. The assessment breakdown is actually quite nice, comprising of 10% coming from laboratory performance throughout the semester, another 10% from the submission of two drafts (literature review and project report – 5% each), 30% from an oral presentation and finally, 50% from a research report, which is similar to a mini honours thesis.

Overall I found this subject to be the most rewarding subject I have taken throughout my degree, as it has taught me far more than just what research itself involves. This subject has also made me appreciate the immerse amount of work which countless researchers do day in and day out. Furthermore, it ties in very well with the rest of the Pathology major, which is probably the most underrated major offered by MDHS. If you’re wondering what to major in, I highly encourage you to consider Pathology, or to incorporate a research subjects like PATH30004 or BIOM30003 into your degree. You definitely won’t regret it!

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