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Why do a year in industry?

Earlham Institute offers two students each year a place on our Year in Industry programme. Jess Peers and Giovanni Gendarini, our most recent undergraduates, say it’s been an experience they would recommend.

September 18, 2020

Earlham Institute offers two students each year a place on our Year in Industry programme. Jess Peers and Giovanni Gendarini, our most recent undergraduates, say it’s been an experience they would recommend.

“It’s going to be weird to leave - I’ve not been in the building since mid March,” says Jess Peers, as she contemplates the penultimate day of her Year In Industry. “It’ll be weird going back to uni, too, I think.”

Although COVID-19 has proved a huge curveball for many this year, Jess & fellow student Giovanni Gendarini have not let this get in the way of a Year In Industry experience that has seen Giovanni named as an author on a published piece of research already. It’s likely that for both, there’ll be more to come.

A Year in Industry in the time of COVID

For Jess, though her initial project was hampered by the lockdown brought in to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, this was a chance to get to grips with a very new area of biology - bioinformatics: one that she was unable to explore at university.

“I think it’s something that universities could dedicate more time to,” says Jess, as she reminisces on her introduction to bioinformatics - an essential cog in the works for any aspiring life scientist today. “It should be a full module.”

Jess, supervised by Dr Mark McMullan of the Neil Hall Group, had started off by working on a project in the lab. “We began by going out and sampling, which was fun. We worked on ash dieback disease, which I hadn’t seen before, so going out to see it was interesting - to see the effects of it.” Then the lockdown came into effect, meaning that a side project took on an added significance.

“The second part of the project was initially just a small piece of work for a paper - but I ended up playing a much bigger role in that as I had to move to working from home.” For modern biologists, working from home is not quite the constraint it might once have been, especially now that computational biology can be done from anywhere with a wifi connection. “I’m really glad I got so much of an opportunity to do bioinformatics, now.”

Spot the Student! Year in Industry student Jess, working on sampling for Ash Dieback Disease.

Jess spent her Year in Industry looking at ash dieback, going out sampling trees
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This year has proved that I can do it [a PhD]. Even though a few things went wrong, and COVID happened, I still managed to get some decent results. It’s made me a lot more confident going into the application process.

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Jess Peers, Year in Industry student

Learning through experience

“We were one of the first labs back in the lab,” says Giovanni, who has been working with Nicola Patron’s Synthetic Biology Group. “We still had to work half days, and we had to restart growing all the plants in the glasshouse, but other than that the impact wasn’t so bad.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to go through all the disruptions at university though!”

Giovanni has gained a lot of insights into what research is really like, which he says you don’t necessarily pick up during your undergraduate studies. “A lot of the basic techniques you need for molecular biology, assembling things, you don’t really learn at university.

“But probably the most important thing I’ve learned is how much troubleshooting you need to do - and how to do it. At uni, when they show you the experiments, everything always looks so clean. But really, before you can actually test a hypothesis, you need to run the experiment several times to make sure everything is working.”

Jess agrees, as she recounts the many painstaking weeks she spent decontaminating the lab - a not uncommon experience for a molecular biologist. “I did lots of PCRs and things like that, which was much different than working in pairs in a university lab with a demonstrator telling me what to do. Here, it was more like - give it a go, see what happens. I liked that a lot, it was nice to interpret the results and work out the method myself.

“I did have a problem with contaminated samples for a few months, though, which was a pain - but a learning experience! If I’m ever in a situation where the lab has a contamination problem, I know what to do.”

Year in Industry student, Giovanni, enjoying (pre-lockdown) social time with his colleagues.

Year in Industry student Giovanni spending social time with his colleagues.
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I wasn't expecting so much freedom in how I design my experiments

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Giovanni Gendarini, Year in Industry student

An experience to remember

Though both Jess and Giovanni might have expected to do some serious research during their Year In Industry, there were some surprises, too - and not just the news that they would present their research to the entire institute in their final week.

“I wasn’t expecting so much freedom in how I design my experiments,” says Giovanni, who feels he was empowered to take his research in his own direction, which could have an effect on what he does after leaving university. “Compared to before, now I’m more keen to go towards a PhD. I’m not 100% convinced yet, but more than I was. I really enjoyed it.”

Jess, who feels she also now has a much more solid grasp of what it takes to pursue a research career, agrees. “I didn’t expect to have so much leadership over my own project. I wasn’t expected to be asked - what do you want to do? What hypothesis do you want to test? It was a little scary at first!

“This year has proved that I can do it [a PhD]. Even though a few things went wrong, and COVID happened, I still managed to get some decent results. It’s made me a lot more confident going into the application process.”

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It’s a good chance to get out into research or industry and get experience before you graduate. It’s also fun, and a really good chance to use what you’ve been taught at uni - and see what interests you.

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Do a Year in Industry at Earlham Institute

“I say do it,” says Jess, of Earlham Institute’s Year In Industry programme. “It’s a good chance to get out into research or industry and get experience before you graduate. It’s also fun, and a really good chance to use what you’ve been taught at uni - and see what interests you.

“I was also enjoying being at work. I really enjoyed the social aspects.”

Giovanni, who also enjoyed the (pre lockdown) social aspects of life at EI - particularly the table football table - agrees. “Do it! I think it’s fun - also useful - but in particular it’s fun. You get to know a lot of people, and as well as getting to know them as friends - it’s a great networking opportunity.

“It’s a good idea to do a Year in Industry.”

You can read about more experiences of our former students on Sam's Blog.

If you would like to do a Year in Industry at Earlham Institute, watch this space: adverts will be online very soon. Keep checking our vacancies page, and keep in touch through our newsletter and social media accounts.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager