A Wellcome Insight into STEM careers
As a biology teacher, there are few more exciting opportunities than spending a week on placement at biomedical research organisations, Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute. We went with an aim to find out more about the range of STEM careers in large science organisations, and for both of us as teachers at Liverpool Life Sciences UTC and City of Westminster College, we gained valuable insight into careers that we could share with our students, allowing them to make more informed choices for their future. Our experiences at both the Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute were fascinating, enjoyable and will prove invaluable in developing our teaching practice and supporting our students.
Day 1 - A “Wellcome” welcome
The week started with an introduction to our mentor at Wellcome and the rest of the education and learning team, who made us feel very welcome (pun intended). We joined their weekly meeting to discuss workload and priorities which was a useful way for us to get an initial idea of the roles within the team and the various projects.
The day was full of meetings with people from all over the business, each as insightful as the last. We spoke to two researching doctors who gave us a flavour of the kind of research projects that are funded by the trust plus the routes they took from academia to their current roles.
From these two people with research backgrounds who both entered careers at Wellcome with PhDs, we went straight to meeting two young apprentices. All too often schools can focus too much on getting students to university without considering the other options, but this conversation made it clear that you do not require a degree in science to work at an organisation like this. We also spoke to the communications lead for the trust and two members of the team behind Explorify, an excellent resource to help non-science specialist primary school teachers to plan and deliver engaging and effective lessons. We were so impressed that we were begging them to make a similar resource for secondary school science teachers by the end!
Day 2 - Engagement and conservation
Day two started with a session with a local group of sixth form students, The Body Images Workshop, which involved a series of tasks and discussions. Students engaged with historical exhibits in the Wellcome Collection to suggest how body image had changed over time, from prosthetic legs and glass eyes through to obesity and face masks.
We had been particularly excited to spend the afternoon with the conservation team behind the Wellcome Collection, responsible for conserving and presenting items to preserve their historical importance and enable them to be appreciated through the years. The range of knowledge and skills required for a career in museum conservation is so varied... we even got to have a go at storing and cataloguing some of Henry Wellcome’s vast collection of postcards.
Day 3 - Everything “Cricks” into place
On Wednesday we arrived at the Francis Crick Institute, a first for both of us and we were immediately struck by how inspiring the building was. We were made to feel incredibly welcome and in our time there developed our own knowledge and laboratory skills through speaking to the lab group and running our own three and four-strand exchange reactions to research the mechanisms behind DNA recombination and repair.
On the tour of the Crick where we gained an understanding of the range of departments and people that allow the Crick to function smoothly. A highlight was visiting the cryo-room where frozen biological samples are stored… the scale was mind-blowing. It was interesting to learn that the Crick has its own electrical engineering department who fix faulty equipment in-house. These again are job roles that our own students with an interest in electronics could potentially enter straight from school. We also spoke to the man responsible for producing illustrations and graphics, visualising the research done here. This is a career many students with both artistic skill and a passion for science likely don’t know about but is a perfect option for them.
Day 4 - Not all scientists wear white coats
The next day we met a media and communications officer whose route into a science-based career will surely inspire many budding writers who also have an enquiring mind and love of science. So many individuals I met during the week gave me such a breadth of understanding of how different skills and interests can lead into areas I had never even thought of for my students, much less the students having considered them themselves. This staff member’s pathway is a useful one to bear in mind for the many students that like to combine science with other subjects and that, contrary to popular belief, pursuing science doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair… not all scientists wear white coats!
Our two days at the Crick ended with the guest lecture which run fairly regularly at the Crick and are aimed at all staff for those who have an interest, not just those directly involved in research.
Day 5 - Putting it all together
We were back at Wellcome for the final day of our placement, starting at its library. We were shown around and felt like we were discovering another world, where the printed texts that line the shelves cater to a range of fascinating, morbid and sometimes quite bizarre topics! We were introduced to the role of librarian here and learnt that to be a library assistant requires no degree. It has been exciting to learn of the varied opportunities that exist within these organisations that are open to non-graduates. After all, university isn’t for everyone, and it’s great as a teacher to be able to encourage some students with an interest in science that they can work in that world without a degree.
We met with one doctor from the department which looks at ways of replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in scientific research, stressing the need for compassion and ethics. As teachers, as we know young people today are very aware through social media about the ethical issues surrounding using animals in research, some are even deterred from pursuing science-based careers for this reason, so it’s useful to share these developments with them and help them better understand how scientists are actively working towards a solution.
So what does this placement mean for our students? We are better-equipped to talk to them about opportunities and career pathways in the sciences at every level. With the technology that is now available, there has never been a more exciting time to get into science and there are so many different ways of doing this. Not only do STEM Insight placements allow you to inform and inspire your students that bit more, but it will also give you a welcome revival out of the classroom and remind you why you love science!