Summer science

By Oscar

Daniel Burnham
Sep 12, 2017 · 4 min read

Science is viewed by the public in two diametrically opposing ways. On the one hand, some science is seen to be cutting edge and hugely exciting. Think SpaceX and three-parent babies. Think deranged geniuses, repeatedly electrocuting themselves while creating Frankensteinian life forms and attempting to keep their uncontrollable hair in check. This is the science of Hollywood movies and of young children’s imaginations, a dangerous and exotic world where every day heralds a new discovery and every scientist is likely harbouring a secret desire to destroy the planet.

One the other hand, those who have been (un)fortunate enough to come into contact with scientists know that the reality of science, for all but the most evil of evil geniuses, is rather different. Long days are spent repeating experiments and analysing excel spreadsheets. Experiments fail. Then they fail again. Even the genetic modification of organisms, once a terrifying leap into the unknown, has become mundane.

The Crick is an attempt to bring some of the lost glamour back into academic research. Yet the difference is not in the research itself. There are, alas, no spaceships here, and I have yet to meet Elon Musk or encounter a cyborg (I did however see the Spanish King and Queen, and BoJo’s altogether less successful sibling). However, while I can confirm that the Crick is not a spaceport, a young child stepping into the vast atrium could well be convinced that it is. The lecture theatre is housed within a gigantic spheroid white shell. High above, glass walkways fill the otherwise empty chasm between laboratories, with scientists in white coats trolleying all manners of specimens and chemicals across them. Simply to enter the building, one must enter a capsule where unspeakable scientific experiments take place upon one’s entrapped, helpless body.*

*centre of mass analysis

This is the role of the Crick. Yes, it is filled with many of the world’s best biological researchers. Yes, it has huge amounts of funding, the best available equipment, and is already producing world-class scientific research. But the ultimate role of the Crick is to inspire. In a world where science is increasingly disregarded for political gain, and experts are scorned upon, the Crick stands as a beacon of hope for those of us who believe knowledge and academia are essential pillars of society and progress. It is a symbolic commitment to research and science in the heart of London.

You can therefore imagine my excitement at being selected to spend eight weeks here, as part of the Crick’s first summer studentship programme. From the first moment, it was clear that the Institute was determined to make a good impression and help educate the students. Most interviews are nerve-wracking, soulless affairs where one attempts to prove to everyone in the room how brilliant they are without appearing like an egomaniac (a tricky balancing act). At the Crick, however, they made an effort to make the day useful for everyone, regardless of whether they were successful in their interviews. A tour of the building was provided (including the vertigo-inducing 15 storey staircases) and there was a Q&A session with current PhD students. Furthermore, for those lucky enough to be selected, a full induction day was arranged, complete with practice presentations and a drinks reception. Throughout the process, the management made efforts to ensure we were enjoying the project and answer any questions we had.

In my project I worked on T-antigen DNA helicase using magnetic tweezers. Under the supervision of Daniel Burnham I learnt much about microfluidics and light microscopy. I think the most useful part of the project for me was learning more about how Matlab and Labview can be used for image analysis (I hadn’t used Matlab for two years, and hadn’t even heard of Labview!). The other summer students worked on a broad range of topics, from designing cyclic peptide oncogene inhibitors to solving X-ray structures. This, I thought as I sat chatting to the other summer interns, is the way to get young science students to go into research.

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I have seen first-hand the impact that the lack of funding and general scorn towards research has on potential future scientists. The brightest and best are faced with a difficult decision: either accept low pay and job insecurity while doing something good for society, or be rewarded with huge salaries working at banks and financial organisations that often actively damage the society in which they exist. It is no surprise that many choose the latter, but we should not accept this disappointing state of affairs. By stepping up to the plate and investing so heavily in science, the powers that be have made an important step towards ensuring the next generation of science students enter academic research, rather than taking their skills elsewhere. The benefits of this may not be immediately seen, but in time the country will surely reap the rewards of this historic investment into our futures (and maybe I’ll find it easier to get funding for a PhD).

Daniel Burnham

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Scientist at @TheCrick. A blog that is evolving to describe my day job, my hobbies, and cycle commuting.