Hear from 2020 Scholar, Eleanor Smith, and her supervisor, Professor Stephen Price, on their experiences of the Laidlaw Research and Leadership Programme.

Original article published by University College London on 10/12/2020.

The Laidlaw Leadership and Research Programme aims to create the leaders of the future through training and six weeks of full-time research and leadership activities in your first and second summer holidays. The programme is open to current first year undergraduate students in any discipline.

We speak with Stephen and Eleanor about why they chose to take part in the programme, what they took from the experience and their top tips for supervisors and students thinking about applying to the programme. 

Stephen Price is an academic with a role split between UCL Chemistry and the BASc programme. His research interests focus on developing new experiments to study the chemistry and properties of reactive species.

Eleanor Smith, a third year chemistry student, recently completed a Laidlaw research project under Stephen’s supervision.  Her project on studies of the ionization of pyrimidine took place over two summers, having been selected as a Scholar in her first year. 

Why did you get involved in the Laidlaw programme?

Eleanor: I discovered the Laidlaw Scholarship purely by chance. It was in a UCL newsletter that I had, for once, decided to read! It seemed really interesting as it’s very uncommon to find first year undergraduate research opportunities. Also, I’d always wanted to try research, so I decided to apply.

Stephen: I think exposure to real research for undergraduate students can be an exciting and transformative experience – it was for me.

Conventional undergraduate labs in physical chemistry bear little relation to the research work that is performed in research labs – particularly in the field of instrument development.  So, it’s great to be able to show keen undergraduates that research in physical chemistry is not all measurements using well-established techniques. 

How did you settle on a topic for the research project?

Eleanor: Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment, targeting tumours with high energy radiation to kill cancerous cells. However, it can damage healthy tissue, causing complications in the patient. The department is investigating the interaction between radiation and DNA to improve treatment and my project sought to inform this research.

Pyrimidine is an analogue for the DNA and RNA bases cytosine, thymine and uracil. So understanding how radiation affects pyrimidine can help us to understand the interaction between radiation and DNA.

For my project, I recorded the electron impact ionization spectra of pyrimidine and analysed the spectra to produce a series of ionisation cross sections. These cross sections characterise which ions are expected to be produced following an interaction between an electron and pyrimidine, and can be used in computational models to replicate and improve radiotherapy.

Stephen: The topic, studies of the ionization of pyrimidine, is a research avenue promoted by Dr Lilian Ellis-Gibbings in our group.  Pyrimidine is a good model for some of the key functionality of the DNA bases and Lily is interested in ionization of biomolecules.  In addition, the experimental apparatus involved can, with hard work, generate a complete data set within the timescale of a Laidlaw project.

Learn more about how Scholars continued to conduct important research through COVID-19

How did COVID-19 affect your original plans and how did you respond? 

Eleanor: The pandemic meant that the lab portion of my project could not be carried out. Fortunately, I had recorded the spectra the previous year and had more than enough data to analyse at home. But, remote working came with its own challenges.

We use custom programs to process data and sometimes they error. This is not too much of a problem when working in an office, but trying to fix errors over Teams calls is much more difficult. Tasks that would only take a day or two in the office took much longer at home and I only fully got to grips with things in the last two weeks of my project.

However, once I sorted out the teething issues and got into a routine, it went much better. I did miss being in the office and the lab, but I still finished my data analysis and had fun.

Stephen: As Eleanor said, she had recorded the data in the summer of 2019 so switching this summer to online analysis was not too difficult.  Along with getting the program to work over Teams, losing the ability to lean over someone’s shoulder to look at what they’re doing was perhaps the biggest challenge. 

Stephen, has anything surprised you about supervising Eleanor’s project, or a Laidlaw project in general?

Well, ionization of pyrimidine sets off a far more diverse and complex chain of unimolecular chemistry than just about any molecule we’ve ever looked at – which is interesting in itself.  What impressed Lily and I was the tenacity with which Eleanor approached analysing the vast dataset.  There is perhaps enough for a PhD project in this one set of spectra!

How would you say this experience has benefitted Eleanor?

Stephen: I’m sure Eleanor can tell you what she thinks but I hope she has learnt that front-line research can be surprising – you find things you did not expect.  But it also is hard work, so dedication and persistence pay off in allowing you to fully explore the consequences of your experiments. 

I also hope the experience has shown that there is considerable creativity involved in both designing experiments and in developing models to reveal chemical processes.

Eleanor: My project greatly improved my scientific skills. It improved the way I analyse and think about data and my approach to solving scientific problems. This has been indispensable throughout my course.

The Laidlaw programme has improved my confidence. When I started my project I was really nervous and very quiet. But once I got to know my supervisor and their team, I started to have more fun. It made me much more self-assured and taught me how to express my opinion in an academic environment.

Eleanor, tell us how do you intend to build on this experience for the rest of your time at UCL (and beyond!)?

I’m a committee member for the Laidlaw Society, so I still work on events for UCL Laidlaw Scholars. It lets me stay in contact with all the interesting and intelligent people that take up the scholarship. Finding out about the work others are doing is really inspiring and gives me a lot of food for thought.

Also, my project has encouraged me to consider pursuing a postgraduate degree. I now know that I am comfortable in an academic environment and that I enjoy research. Hopefully I can continue learning more about chemistry and using the skills from the scholarship to further my career.

Eleanor, what tips would you offer students considering applying for the Laidlaw programme?

  1. Firstly, just apply, whether you think you’ll get it or not, you might be surprised.
  2. Whether you’re applying for a set project or proposing your own, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for advice. You’re still a first year so you’re unlikely to understand everything about the project. It’s OK to ask them to explain any concepts you don’t understand.
  3. Finally, keep an eye on the deadlines. I left my application until the last minute and it was very overwhelming. Give yourself some time to think about and explore your project as it will improve your application.

And Stephen, what three top tips would you offer to anyone thinking about proposing a Laidlaw project? 

  1. Make sure the project will generate some results (even if they are ones you don’t expect) in the 6 week period.
  2. Students don’t have to have met the exact topic of the project in their undergraduate studies; learning about a new field is part of the fun of the scholarship.  Students are always keen to learn in these research-based projects.
  3. Involve the student in the whole research process as far as you can: planning, data taking, analysis and writing-up.

Apply to become a 2021 Laidlaw Scholar

Find out more about the Laidlaw Undergraduate Scholarship and apply.