October 2015 | Issue 20
Growing brain cells – the perfect holiday project for one med student

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By Nicole Lim
Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

The end-of-year holidays were fast approaching and then-Year 1 student Aletheia Chia was still looking for something out-of-the-box to do during her break. Little did she expect an 8am Monday morning lecture to be the spark of inspiration.

Listening to the Innovations in Medicine lecture by Professor of Molecular Medicine Dean Nizetic on
How to grow your own brain cells in a dish and watch them perform!, Aletheia, who just started her second year of medical school, soon found herself spell bound by the talk. "It was a really cool way of looking at genetics," said Aletheia. She'd found her holiday project.

Ale​theia at work in Prof Nizetic's lab

She emailed Prof Nizetic, whose immediate response was yes! "My first thought was I must have done something right with that lecture!" said Prof Nizetic, who believes that involving future doctors in today's research is crucial. "In our fast-changing world, the significant research breakthroughs we make in the lab today will impact how medicine is practised when our students graduate, so it is important that we share as much as we can with them. And sometimes, students approach our work with a pair of fresh eyes and ask questions that we've completely overlooked!" he added.

So just two days after finishing her year-end exams, Aletheia reported to the lab. Working under the supervision of Research Fellow Dr Aoife Murray, s spent the next three weeks getting a taste of life in the lab.

Aletheia said, "So far, I'd largely experienced science as doing experiments and learning techniques such as pipetting. But here, I got to experience first-hand the huge amount of thought that is needed before you get to the experiment and the importance of asking the right question in the right way."

While her three weeks weren't quite long enough to give her an independent project, Aletheia was able to get involved in a key project of the lab that looks into developing ways to hasten the process through
which brain cells (neurons) are grown from stem cells. Under Dr Murray's supervision, Aletheia learnt to feed cells, recognise and follow their differentiation into neurons, as well as analyse the neurons in different ways and work with other labs on experiments that needed their expertise. One memorable moment from her attachment came from seeing individual neurons work using the patch-clamp technique. Aletheia said, "We worked with Professor George Augustine's team for this experiment to look at one individual neuron and how it responds to different stimuli."

Looking back at her three weeks in the lab, Aletheia said, "I learnt a lot of techniques and am certainly much more confident at pipetting! I also learnt that what we benefit from today took years of work from dedicated scientists. Science is slow work, but when you see results from your experiments, it is all worth it."

To other students thinking about doing a science attachment, Aletheia, who is considering similar attachments for future holidays, says, "Just do it."

For Dr Murray, this exchange between medical students and scientists is part and parcel of being a medical school. She said, "It's a great way to build relationships within the School and allow the medical students to gain some first-hand experience of research. I remember how supportive the postdoc and professor were during my first holiday attachment and they made the experience really enjoyable. So I wanted to pass on that excitement that science can offer."

rof Nizetic, who has hosted many students during his career, agrees. "Such attachments not only help medical students find out whether they have the research bug, they are also opportunities to extend what students have already learnt about medical science, sharpen their ability to think critically and experimentally about solving medical problems and add valuable experience to their CVs that might come in handy in a competitive job market one day."