In any university degree subject, there are opportunities to positively change lives. From design or economy; social sciences to engineering, if you carve your own path and come up with the ideas then, frankly, anything is possible. After all, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room.
But what about those courses where all the students are quietly changing the world – beavering away to make discoveries that might improve thousands of lives. Students on Swansea University’s Biochemistry and Genetics MSci course, are all taking part in medical research projects that might just lead to some of the world’s big discoveries.
Working away inside the brain cells being grown by Swansea University Medical School students are Nicotinamide N-methyltransferase enzymes. This enzyme is commonly present in humans in the latter stages of Parkinson’s disease, and Student Paige White has studied its function and evolution.
“If the sequence of this enzyme is unique to humans then it’s an indication that further research is needed,” said Paige. “If we look to see how it has evolved, then perhaps we might learn, further down the line, how to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s.”
Scientific discoveries are generally a collaborative effort. Research leads to further research and so on, until somewhere down the line the headline-grabbing breakthrough occurs. “It’s always been emphasised to us by our lecturers that our research can open the door to other scientists, and to further discoveries – I think that’s pretty cool,” she adds. “It feels like you are part of something that could be important.”
Recent graduate Darius Mcphail also studied the minutiae of disease. As part of his final year project, he investigated some newly developed chips of small titanium diboride etched on top of a silicon wafer. In short, it is work that has the potential to advance the treatment of diabetes and ovarian cancer.
Darius was lucky enough to carry out a placement at the University of Houston in Texas. He said the variety of lab equipment available at Swansea University Medical School helped to prepare him for his final year research project. “In my third year we took a new module which involved preparing a lab book and having hands-on experience with a large variety of different techniques, involving Confocal Scanning laser microscopy, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry and toxicity assays,” said Darius. “This meant that going into my final year I had hands-on experience with a lot of different techniques, which I feel prepared me a lot.”
Fellow MSci graduate Ben Jenkins echoes this sentiment. He carried out his research at one of the Institute of Life Science building at Swansea University Medical School on a specific type of immune cell, called the natural killer (NK) and its function within pregnancy.
“The research used so many facilities within the university laboratories,” he says. “There are so many techniques I’ve learned and so many facilities for blood sampling, testing blood samples from hospitals, and basically isolating different cell types through various methods. For immunology, Swansea is really cutting edge.”
NK cells are important in anti-viral immunity, and as pregnant women are more susceptible to particular viruses, such as flu, understanding the function of these cells may help to discover if they contribute towards this worsened response.
“I find it really interesting discovering things that no one has found out before,” adds Ben. “Knowing that this work can affect people down the line, that it might lead other scientists to make further discoveries, is exciting.”
This area of science, which explores genetics and molecular biology, is a growing subject and is making an enormous impact in the study and treatment of many human diseases and pharmaceutical development.
Swansea’s four-year MSci is an advanced undergraduate honours degree – also known as an integrated masters course because the final year is equivalent to a post-graduate masters (FHEQ Level 7). In the additional year, students develop these extended research projects, just as Paige, Darius and Ben have done. Darius added: “I’m interested in going into research, probably for drug development. Ideally, I’d like to work in one of the major pharmaceutical companies such as GSK or AstraZeneca.”
Of course, there are plenty of other avenues to follow where you can make a difference, and even change the world, but choosing a subject that is focused on discovery can certainly be an effective starting point.
For more information on Swansea University’s Biochemistry and Genetics MSci course, you can visit their website.
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