This week we have a special blog post about the Young Scientist Programme written by Erin Lafferty, the Public Engagement Coordinator for the School.
If you were to visit the School at certain points of the year, you may think our students are getting a lot younger! Chances are however that you have run in to a student taking part in our award-winning Young Scientist Programme. The programme, which began in 2001, runs three times a year and provides school students aged 14-18 from local London boroughs with the opportunity to carry out a two-week work experience placement at the School. The students get to experience what life is like as a biomedical research scientist “doing real research” as one participant described it, and working to answer important scientific questions.
In pairs or groups of three, with support from School staff and students, the young scientists come up with a research question and hypothesis and develop appropriate methods to answer the question. Due to the short time frame of the programme, the students most often seek to answer their research question through creating and disseminating a survey; with staff and students at the School acting as the most frequent but always willing test subjects! The young scientists collect, enter and analyse their survey data, and finally create and deliver a final research presentation to an audience of family, friends, and staff and students from the School.
The students’ research questions are often varied and can range from the more serious, such as ‘How exercise affects health and emotions’ to the more fun, yet still interesting and relevant, ‘To game or not to game?’. In coming up with their research topics, the young scientists often draw inspiration from their everyday lives and experiences. For example, the ‘Journey into the brain’ project began when the two students were having an argument about whether right-handed or left-handed people were smarter and decided to turn this into their research question. The ‘More than a dispenser’ topic stemmed from a dinner table conversation about how GPs feel overburdened with patient visits and pharmacists feel that their skills are underutilised.
In addition to working with lead academics and the School’s Public Engagement Coordinator throughout each day, the young scientist research groups are assigned a mentor who meets with them daily. Many current and past MSc and PhD students have acted as mentors in the programme. They help the students refine their research question or methods, discuss important statistical concepts and tools, watch and provide comments on their practice presentations, and generally act as a source of motivation and support for the students.
The time here for the young scientists is not all work. They also tour the labs at the School, where they learn about our important laboratory research and see samples of parasites down the microscope and worms in jars. A highlight of their time also includes a visit to the School’s insectaries to check out our colonies of mosquitoes and bedbugs and hear about how they are fed and used in research.
Following their time in the programme the young scientists often comment that they have “learned how to create surveys and analyse data professionally” as well as how the work experience has “made me much more confidant with my presentation skills and helped me improve my teamwork skills”. It is incredible to watch their growth during their short tenure as young scientists at the School showing that biomedical research in the future is in good hands.