All entries for July 2020
July 01, 2020
(This post has been reuploaded at a later date due to some issues with order and publishing)
Just an update from me to follow up from the January post!
The iGEM (international Genetically Engineering Machine) project
Though iGEM is a summer project the team has already begun ideation and discussion, as we need to apply to funding and do preliminary research before the Summer holidays begin. After about a month of research, deliberation and presentations we've decided to do a project on bowel cancer detection. Recent papers have raised that there's a possible link between E. coli (a common gut bacterium) and the development of bowel cancer, of which there are 42000 new cases per year in the UK alone. Bowel cancer is also being diagnosed in an increasing number of persons under 50, with the highest rising group being people in their 20s! Lab-grown replicas of the human gut were used to test this and our team aims to utilise synthetic biology further to uncovering more knowledge about this topic.
I've also been quite busy with volunteering as I near the end of my time as BioSoc's Outreach Officer. Last week, myself and 3 members of the BioSoc volunteering team headed out to Edgewick Community Primary School, a Widening Participation school in Coventry, to carry out a very hands on workshop meant to teach the children about the digestive tract. This was our first trip out for the Warwick WP Bright Stars programme, the Life Sciences “branch” of which I started during my time as Outreach Officer. We created handmade materials and planned activities for a “Lesson in a Box,” which means that even if students are not free to deliver the workshops, the activities should be easy and accessible to carry out by the teachers themselves as long as our box is sent out to them!
The box with our hand-drawn and handmade materials. It felt good to use my art training from SOTA again!
Everyone appeared to be having a blast, and we hope we’ve left a great impression on biology as a subject to the kids. Unfortunately photos taken during the activity will have to wait, as schools in the UK shut down quite suddenly on Friday and the teachers who took them are unable to send them over for now.
First Aid and AED training
In February, I also undertook a CPR and AED (Automated External Defibrillator) course at the Warwick Medical School. I’m glad to say I’ve passed the exam and now am officially certified as a Basic Life Skills provider. On top of basic first aid and CPR (for adults, young children and babies,) we also learned how to use the AED, how to apply tourniquets for catastrophic bleeding, proper procedure for choking as well as managing drowning situations. I'm currently undergoing selection to teach this course in the next academic year, though those plans have been put on hold due to the uncertainty of the virus situation here.
Us modelling the choking training apparatus - you practice doing the Heimlich maneuver on this and when you do it correctly and with enough force to dislodge blocks in the airway, a foam piece will shoot out of the tube at the top.
After the incredible success of the SingSoc production I had watched in my first year of University, I had considered taking up a part in the 2020 production which was of a play written by a member of the SingSoc. Sadly, the final exam of my first aid course coincidentally clashed with the day of the play, and as such I was unable to even attend the showing, let alone participate in it. After my exam ended at the Medical School I rushed over to the Students' Union where the play was being wrapped up and was able to catch the actors right in time!
Many of the actors were members of my orientation group at the SingSoc Orientation camp in 2019!
2020 BioSoc Ball
Also in February was the BioSoc Ball, which the 2019/20 exec worked really hard on organising. As none of us had organised a Ball before it was a rather hectic scramble as we had to get everything from venue, entertainment, decor and transport in place. As always with big events, best laid plans will fall through but I'm proud of us for pulling through despite a range of issues such as last-minute cancellations by services we hired.
The event was a wonderful way to wrap up our time in the exec as election results for the 2020/21 exec were just released two days before. I’m happy to report that I’ve been elected as the Vice-President of the BioSoc for the next academic year and have plenty of big plans for the society!
The BioSoc exec of 2019/20: The first exec committee I joined back in first year!
One of my closest friends from SOTA who's currently studying in London was also able to join us at the ball 💕
COVID changes in plans
I was planning to stay in my off-campus accommodation to revise for Term 3 examinations, planning wellbeing events for BioSoc members in preparation for the revision and exam term, as well as gradually handing over all the projects I’ve juggled as Outreach Officer to next year’s Officers. I also had a 6 credit weighted biology field course in Wales to prepare for - though now it’s been cancelled as Warwick is stopping all face-to-face assessment and teaching in Term 3. As the Singaporean MFA issued a recommendation for students overseas to return to Singapore, I decided to fly home to be with family in the uncertain situation. As London was slated to go into lockdown over the weekend before my flight, I had to pack up my entire life in the UK very quickly! I was lucky to have a close friend from SOTA studying in London who was able to let me stay in her flat while waiting for our flight, and we flew home together in late March.
It's been really unique living through and seeing the development of the COVID-19 pandemic as a Biology student. Though all students at the department of Life Sciences study virology and epidemiology, before COVID such outbreaks appeared so distant from anything we'd have ever experienced. Things in the UK were business as usual into mid-March, before panic buying and stockpiling began showing a sombre change in mood and perceptions of the virus. Masks were in short supply at the time and it was also WHO/government advice for civilians to not rush to buy them anyway, as healthcare workers required them more urgently as cases began to rise.
It was so strange to see an almost-deserted Changi Airport after landing in Singapore - In all my years, I had never seen it so empty! The swab test after touchdown was incredibly painful, leaving the back of my nose sore for a couple of days, but I was still very grateful for the fact that there were even tests available for us to take. The whole experience was efficient and professional and I was very proud of Singapore for pulling together such an impressive response with such short notice.
After serving my mandatory 2 week Stay-Home Notice (while gradually recovering from the inevitable jetlag), I began preparing for my final exams which were due to be scheduled for May - June 2020. At the same time, I had several lab reports and Society responsibilities to finish as I wrapped up my year as the Outreach Officer of BioSoc. It was quite the challenge trying to keep up with virtual meetings while in Singapore's timezone, though I eventually got used to staying up at night to attend revision sessions, exam briefings and my weekly mentoring responsibilities at BioCafe!
(This post has been reuploaded at a later date due to some issues with order and publishing!)
It's been a frantic couple of weeks back at uni - a flurry of academic work along with society responsibilities, and now the added panic of applying to Summer internships.
Thankfully, I recently found out that I've made it into Warwick's iGEM team for 2020!
The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is a worldwide synthetic biology (or SynBio) competition with thousands of participants from hundreds of universities. I'm incredibly excited for this - not only because I'll get to work in a lab over the Summer at Warwick, making use of the amazing lab equipment and facilities that the School of Life Sciences has, but I'll also get to represent Warwick in the annual iGEM Jamboree conference/competition in Boston at the end of Summer! It will be my first time in the US and I'm feeling the same excitement at theprospect to explore a whole new place, as I did in the weeks leading up to starting first year at university in Warwick.
Most importantly however, I hope to utilise my role both in the wet lab and human practices, outreach and engagement, to do my part in preventing the misconception that genetic engineering is inherently bad. Though genetic engineering may seem "unnatural" to some, this is very much an exaggeration and unnecessary worry in most cases: genetic modification has been carried out for thousands of years - ancient farmers choosing to collect/breed seeds from the stronger crops for the next harvest is also a form of genetic modification! Even for more "serious" genetic modification such as those done in food labs and bigger farms, we would not have much of the produce that we have the luxury of buying in grocery stores today, and even more underprivileged people in this world would be living in poverty and malnutrition.
This is an issue still very fresh in my mind as I write this, as I've recently submitted a Genetics & Genomics laboratory report on beans and how modern plant genetics could help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa breed efficient, productive and money-earning varieties of beans to feed themselves, their families and their countrymen. I truly appreciate how my degree in Biology isn't just consuming and repeating straight scientific facts, but there is also so much thought on the socioeconomic and practical aspects of all this biological data and knowledge. Though I am not personally interested in pursuing plant sciences in my research career, I had a blast researching and writing this report as it forced me to consider not only the complex genetic inheritance of traits like bean seed coat colour, but also how advancements in crop science would affect the livelihoods of farmers in a totally different continent.
A photo I took during a second year genomics lab session
It made me aware of many caveats I would have probably never thought of on my own, such as how the mostly female smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (who also are tasked with tending to the crops, sorting the produce and selling them, as well as household matters like child care, fuel collection, cleaning and cooking) consider a shorter cooking time of beans to be a desirable trait. Phytohemagglutinin (PHA) is a toxic compound present in many common bean varieties that causes poisoning in monogastric animals such as humans. PHA is only deactivated after long enough cooking times, usually at least of several hours. Such cooking times are a rather inefficient use of fuel and time, and modern plant genetics could aid these multitasking farmers in potentially reducing or eliminating PHA in new breeds of beans, or at least reducing the cooking times needed to degrade this compound.
During the iGEM interview, the candidates and interviewers had some quite interesting discussions about the public perception of genetic engineering, especially that that affects our food crops. Part of my interest in joining the iGEM team stemmed from such mislead public perception (I've heard plenty of people complain about "GMO food" despite not even truly understanding what it means and what life would be like if humans had never done any genetic modification of our food.) The iGEM foundation's emphasis on clearing up such misinformation and gaining public trust in our projects, which are truly developed in an effort to improve the world in various ways, is something I personally related very much to as someone wishing to pursue neuroscience. Misconceptions about all the sciences are rampant but for neuroscience especially people seem uncomfortable to talk about their brains and that of others, to quote Ed Boyden (the founder of optogenetics).
Baking for the WAC Asian Food Fair
I made Milo flavoured cream puffs for SingSoc's fundraising! I chose to make these as I felt they'd be both a welcome reminder of home for Singaporeans while a very unintimidating introduction to Singaporean food and culture to any non-Asian students visiting the food fair. Morning on the day of the fair was quite frantic as I had received 63 orders!
They proved very popular at the food fair, as it turns out even the extra batches I had made weren't enough to keep up with demand! I also took the chance to catch up with my SingSoc friends, particularly those that I met all the way back in July 2018, before even setting foot in the UK for the first time. As always, they proved to be a comforting and welcoming community that I could rely on to share our uniquely Singaporean experiences since we'd last met.
As part of my responsibilities as the Outreach Officer for the Biology Society, I'm in charge of coordinating our volunteering team. I held my first volunteer meeting in Week 2 to discuss topics and resources needed for Warwick's Bright Stars programme, where students interested in attending certain subjects in higher education will have the chance to explore what it's like to be a university student in that subject. Later this month is the compulsory safeguarding training for my volunteers, and afterwards we can really get into the volunteer work that we've been gearing up for! As I've mentioned many times on this blog, this is a very exciting prospect as all my volunteering roles before this were largely limited to small groups, but with the Bright Stars programme we'll be able to (hopefully) make a huge impact on many groups of children from different schools in Coventry and Leamington, many of which are considered "Widening Participation" schools and thus have many students on financial aid, free school meals or are otherwise disadvantaged when it comes to applying to university. I also wish to emphasise and encourage more potential first-generation students into my subject, obviously fitting into this demographic myself and currently having the time of my life in university.
In order to refresh myself on the safeguarding training I did in first year, I attended another 2h session with UniAssist (a program in which I am a mentor) and was reminded of all the intricacies of spoken and body language, and its importance in interacion especially with young persons. Thankfully I can draw on my experience of teaching back at Presbyterian High School before coming to university, even though at the time I never really thought more about how my experiences back in 2017 could affect me even 2 years later. It's a timely reminder to appreciate any and all experiences that I can take part in.
On the fundraising side, I've recently held another bake sale for BioSoc to raise funds for BBC Children in Need as well as for our upcoming BioSoc Ball! I'm nearing the end of my time as the Outreach Officer for BioSoc and despite the challenges you'd expect, the time spent working on my outreach projects has been ultimately an amazing learning experience.