Across the pond and back: my year at the School

Brittany from the USA studied the MSc Medical Parasitology in 2014/15 (check back for Brittany’s blogs during her studies). Here, Brittany remembers her time at the School from the moment she received her offer to landing a great job.

I cried. There I was, a senior at university, sitting in class – crying. About five minutes prior to this moment, I was having a discussion before class with my professor about graduate school, and how so far I’d received an acceptance letter from a school in Copenhagen for their parasitology program.

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He asked why I didn’t seem a bit more excited, so I told him that I hadn’t made a choice yet, because I was still waiting to hear back from my “dream school” in London. Just before class began, my phone buzzed, prompting me to check my email. There it was: “Welcome to the School”. I couldn’t hold back. I started awkwardly crying tears of joy. My decision was instantly made, and I already knew in that moment, that that email had changed my life.

A lot of my time in London seemed almost unreal. I feel as though it never really clicked that I was actually living there and attending graduate school, especially one as unique as the School.”

I immediately went to work getting together everything I needed to start my adventure abroad. First and foremost came funding, which consisted of applying to a couple of different places for loans. This was needed before any other paperwork could be sent back to the School, and followed up by confirming my acceptance to study there; after which I received the form required to apply for my visa to study in the UK. During this time, I had to work on looking for housing as well, which thanks to the University of London student dorms, went relatively smoothly. For me personally, the entire process of paperwork spanned from April right up until September.

Admittedly, it was a fairly stressful process that put my time management and patience to the test (as well as my ability to make overseas phone calls). Towards the end, I also had to deal with the fact that I would need to pack up my life for the next year, as well as say goodbye to all my family, friends and boyfriend, which was a different and difficult feeling to deal with. By September, I was feeling a strange mixture of anxiety, sadness and excitement. As my plane touched down at Heathrow, life just didn’t even feel real.

Thankfully, I had one friend already in the city – Jill – to greet me at the airport and help me adjust to what my life was going to be like for the next year. Through the wonderful powers of Facebook, I learned that I would have a classmate at the School who grew up in the same little corner of Pennsylvania as I had, and we clicked fairly quickly. For my entire first day, Jill became my guide, and walked half of central London with me so I could stay awake long enough to fight jet lag. It was so overwhelming, and I was so tired, that I can barely remember the things we saw. Luckily, I was able to take the rest of the year to go back to that day.

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A lot of my time in London seemed almost unreal. I feel as though it never really clicked that I was actually living there and attending graduate school, especially one as unique as the School. The setup was incredibly different to anything I was used to from undergrad. Our actual classes didn’t start until the first week of October, and even then, for my MSc Medical Parasitology it was one solid module that consisted of classroom and laboratory learning that brought us through to December, when we were assessed with only a practical. For the written exam, we were not tested until early June. From January–May we had Terms 2 and 3, where our weeks were split in half by two modules. We were assessed at the end of each module, plus had a written assessment of all modules together in early June adjacent to the aforementioned exam for Term 1’s modules.

Amidst the learning time in Term 3, we were studying for our June exams, as well as getting our literature reviews ready for our summer projects. The summer project kept us occupied from after the exams right up to September, when we handed in our thesis papers for our final grade of the school year, and found out whether we passed or failed the degree.

The Medical Parasitology program was accelerated compared to anything I had done in the US, and was extremely challenging. It takes not only study skills, commitment and time management to make it through, but a lot of passion and drive as well. Thankfully, I was surrounded by some amazing classmates from all over the world. We all became very close, as we knew what we were all going through. We had a fantastic support group and study group, and by the end of our year had become like one big family. This was a common theme seen across all programs at the School. I got the chance to become close with students from other fields of study as well through the student ambassador scheme. Not only did it give me the opportunity to work with fellow students at School events such as Open Day and graduation, but also helped me meet prospective students as well and talk to a huge variety of people.

I made some amazing memories not just with my fellow friends and classmates, but out on my own as well. As a runner, I took some early mornings to watch the sunrise over the Thames and log some miles around the city and in its many parks.”

I also got to go on some unique adventures during my time in London. One of these was a scavenger hunt through Westminster, where I got to learn my way round an area of the city I had not gotten to see yet. To make it better, I even got to go inside the Palace of Westminster for a tour on another excursion. I got to take a trip to the Google offices in central London, where myself and the group of students I visited with shared a brief dream of wanting to work for Google (as well as taking full advantage of the free food throughout the building). I experienced being a “groundling” at the Globe Theatre, while enjoying Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I also had a day which consisted of going to the TfL building with a group of international students and learning all about the history of the London Underground, followed by a tour of a decommissioned Underground station; and learned all the uses stations like these had during the London blitz in World War II. If I had to choose a favourite memory of my time in London, that whole day is probably it.

I made some amazing memories not just with my fellow friends and classmates, but out on my own as well. As a runner, I took some early mornings to watch the sunrise over the Thames and log some miles around the city and in its many parks. During the summer, Hyde Park became a pretty frequent running spot for me, and one of my favourite areas to hit up on a sunny day. And, nothing can beat the solitude and quietness of being one of the only people out in the city on an early morning run. Big Ben and the London Eye just seem to be enjoyed differently at sunrise when there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands, of people around.

As much as the hustle and bustle of the city of London can be enjoyed, it’s always nice to take a break from it as well. At weekends when School work was a bit lighter, I took advantage of European travel and got to see a couple of different countries. It was both cheap and easy for me to go to Dublin for a weekend and explore a much smaller city; and I also got to visit a friend in Sweden and get a 24-hour tour of the Swedish countryside.

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Many people in our class travelled for their summer projects as well. I had classmates in countries in Africa and Central & South America, while I opted for a month in the much closer country of Scotland. There, I collected ticks along the eastern end of the Scottish Highlands, travelling by bus, car and hiking. Having spent nine months in London by that point, the fresh mountain air day after day was something I warmly welcomed. After spending three weeks dragging through woods and fields for deer ticks, I ventured with them back to London to test them for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. I worked in the lab with one of the arbovirus experts at the School, who helped me run PCR, which is the test used to determine the presence of Lyme in the ticks I collected. All of this hands-on experience, and the independence to take on my own project, is another one of the very many things that makes the School so special.

Many people in our class travelled for their summer projects as well. I had classmates in countries in Africa and Central & South America, while I opted for a month in the much closer country of Scotland. There, I collected ticks along the eastern end of the Scottish Highlands, travelling by bus, car and hiking.”

Even now that I’m back Stateside, I’ve gotten the chance to be back doing lab work with parasitic diseases, but it wasn’t immediate. A couple of months after my return, I did a short bout of work at the local medical college. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to be doing, though I was utilizing my previously earned veterinary degree. It mostly consisted of taking care of different types of lab animals, as well as assisting in minor surgeries and writing documents. It was a cool experience, but after the amazing experiences that I had just had over the prior year, I felt like I was in a complete rut. I longed to be back in a lab again, performing diagnostic and clinical assays and putting my newly developed skills to use.

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It came as no surprise then, that the circle came full when I once again cried tears of joy after I was given the opportunity through a contractor to work at Sanofi Pasteur, a multi-national pharmaceutical company that specialises in vaccines. They’re also known as the first company to license a commercial Dengue vaccine. I’ve been working in their Global Clinical Immunology labs, doing clinical testing on both their influenza and new Dengue vaccines. To add to the excitement, I also recently took on a position assisting in the new Zika lab, where a get to work with a small team to develop an assay that will eventually be used to test a potential Zika vaccine candidate currently in development. My time working with the Zika virus has been completely unreal for me, knowing I’ve only been out of school for only 9 months. The hands-on practice and unique learning experience I had received from the School prepared me well though. The fact that I spent the last year getting to learn about arboviruses, and now getting to work with them in a lab is a fulfilling experience, especially when the latter virus has been completely taking over the media recently. I’m incredibly thankful for the time I had at the School that helped me get here.

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