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  • Writer's pictureLauren Callender

My STEM Story

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

I didn't intend to become a scientist. In fact, when I was younger I had no idea what being a scientist meant. At school, we were taught a lot of dull textbook science and if we were lucky we got to do the occasional ad-hoc experiment but other than that I was clueless.


The Early Years

Although I was good at science, my main priority at school was making sure I was in the same lessons as my friends. This meant that when I turned 16 and had to choose my A levels I chose English, drama, and history. Then, a week before Sixth Form started a teacher talked some sense into me and I made a last-minute change to biology, geography, and history. This might seem like a random mix, but these were my best subjects and the ones I enjoyed the most.

Although I liked all three subjects, I struggled with biology. The jump from GCSE to A level was bigger than I'd expected and I failed two of my exams. I was able to retake them and although I did better the second time round I was by no means getting top grades. This made choosing what to study at uni difficult. I found biology the most interesting but it was my worst grade. Fortunately, my biology teacher offered to help me write my personal statement and I applied to do a BSc in Biology at the following universities:

1. University of Leeds

2. University of Manchester

3. University of Sheffield

4. Sheffield Hallam University

5. Nottingham Trent University

The entry grades for my top three choices were AAB and although my chances of getting those were slim I decided to take the risk. As expected, I was rejected from the University of Manchester and Sheffield but by some miracle, the University of Leeds offered me a provisional offer with lower entry grades of BBB. In the end I got BBC (the C being biology) but they still let me in. It wasn't until I started teaching during my Ph.D. that I discovered this wasn't a miracle. The reason I was offered lower entry grades was because some universities in the UK have specialised access to uni schemes that offer students from underprivileged backgrounds places at universities. At the time I had no idea this existed, but as I was a first-generation applicant, from a low-income family and went to an underrepresented state school I fell into this category and was offered lower entry grades.


My Uni Years

Lauren in a graduation gown.

I loved my undergraduate degree and although you might expect someone who got a C to fall behind on a course designed for people who got A's and B's - I didn’t. Like the majority of people who get offered places through access to uni schemes, I graduated with a 2.1. So after my undergrad, I decided to stay in Leeds and do a masters in Molecular Medicine. This was a big commitment as the government don't offer student loans for postgrad, meaning I had to take out a £10,000 loan from the bank (which took me 5 years to pay off) to pay for the tuition fees and to pay for rent and food I worked evenings and weekends at a bar.

My plan was to complete the masters and then apply to work for the NHS in one of their genetic testing labs. However, because I enjoyed my 4-month research project so much I changed my mind and decided that I wanted to stay in research. My supervisor encouraged me to apply for Ph.D's, but at that time I didn't want to. Instead, I wanted to move to London, and after months of rejection, I was finally offered a job as a research assistant in the nephro-urology lab at UCL. I knew very little about the kidney and a lot of the lab techniques I needed to do were new, but I quickly learned everything I needed to know and I loved it.

The UCL contract was only 9 months and because I was enjoying being in the lab so much I decided that I did want to pursue a Ph.D. So I spent months applying for different Ph.D. projects. The interviews were tough and I got many rejections (Ph.D. positions are very competitive) but I was eventually offered a place on a British Heart Foundation doctoral training programme at the William Harvey Research Institute in London. The programme was four years, and I had to do another masters in the first year. This seemed annoying at first, but the programme gave me the freedom to choose the supervisor and project I liked the most. Plus the four years were fully funded meaning I didn't have to pay the tuition fees and I received a tax-free stipend each year - this is basically a salary except you don't get paid very well and instead of being paid monthly you get paid quarterly.


Life as a Ph.D. student

Although I was initially attracted to the British Heart Foundation programme for the cardiovascular aspect, after reading all the prospective projects (there were over 30 to choose from) I ended up choosing to work with Dr. Sian Henson who is an expert in immune cell ageing. Immunology was a completely new field to me but after meeting with Sian I was excited by the project and all the new techniques I would learn, so I decided to go for it!

My research focused on the impact of ageing on T cell metabolism. This was a surprise as I'd always hated metabolism but it turns out metabolism is super important and actually really interesting. During my Ph.D. I presented my work at international conferences, published my research in peer-reviewed journals, and gained a lot of confidence as a scientist. It took me 4 years (including the additional masters) to finish my Ph.D. and although by the end I was 100% ready to finish, it was quite sad saying goodbye to it all.

Lauren posing with a fake graduation hat after passing her PhD viva.

Beyond my Ph.D. Since finishing my Ph.D. I've been working as an industry-based Postdoctoral Research Fellow investigating immune-related adverse events following cancer immunotherapy treatment. It's been weird transitioning from an expert to a newbie again but it's also refreshing to learn lots of new things. I'm really enjoying my job and although I'm not sure what I want to do after my postdoc I'm excited to wait and see what happens.


Lessons learned along the way

  • It's okay not to have everything planned out.

  • You don't have to be an A* student - but you do have to be passionate and work hard!

  • Nothing's set in stone, so you're allowed to change your mind.

  • Always be open-minded and don't be afraid to try new things.

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