Saturday, 28 June 2014

Student-led project ideas have totally changed my views on research training

I remember my first encounter with Dr Barry Burnett, a behavioural geneticist who served as head of the department of Genetics following the retirement if Professor Alan Roper and just before the appointment of Professor Geoff Turner at Sheffield. Barry's office was wall-to-wall with books, text books, novels, journals and laboratory files and note-books, all interleaved with scientific bric-a-brac. A bust of Darwin looked longingly at lovingly engineered brass microscope and a glass case of peppered moths, carefully pinned with the care of a Victorian clergyman. Barry was (and still is) "old school". The picture left is of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, one of Britain's most distinguished Biochemists in his Cambridge "office" probably between the war years: it always reminds me of Barry's office!

Barry and I discussed PhD student supervision and he told me that as a young academic, student applicants were expected to propose their own research projects. At the time (25 years ago), this would not have been the norm, but it certainly isn't today. In fact Professor Janet Hemingway (right)was a student in the same Genetics Department as Barry and she verified this story in her recent Life Scientific broadcast on Radio 4, as an undergraduate at Sheffield. However, the thought stayed with me that one day this might be interesting. The day arrived on Thursday. I invited both the Y12 and Y10 students to come up with ideas for their own projects for the next academic year. Here's what happened.

The first thing I knew, I was inundated with a crowd of students with ideas ranging from: biomimetics of bird and insect flight incorporating 3D printed models,  devising experiments to explore viral encephalitis, the basis of endometriosis, comparative analysis of enzymes catalysing the same reaction in different tissues, the design and fabrication of a bench top mass spectrometer (see earlier blog), the value of anatomy in contemporary biology (see the ruminant project in my last blog). And they kept coming: new sources of antibiotics to meet the Longitude Prize challenge, developmental analysis of the mealworm (our own model organism), the economics of different Healthcare sectors, the complex mathematics underlying patterns of behaviour in living systems, from regulatory enzyme kinetics, to diffusion control in early development, psychology-based survey of group work in labs compared with individual effort, the communication of complex science phenomena......

You get the picture!

The week before, I was thinking of proposing a set , something that builds on the year's mini-projects, but not now. My challenge is to harness their boundless enthusiasm and turn their ideas into practical challenges, which will run over their next academic year. I will be posting all of the projects, along with the student plans over the coming week. The value in supporting the students in pursuing their own ideas is incalculable and I am determined that we will go on this journey together without the "safety net" of a controlled set of "me-too" projects and I look forward to periodically reporting on our progress. It is clear that they are ready to experience the ups and downs, the highs and lows of a real research project, driven by their own passions.

In parallel with the projects, we are launching our UTC Skills Passport, which will be the subject of my next blog, and I'll fit in a molecule of the month for July too!

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