February 21, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Working across science cultures: A student’s experience

photo 1 (2)This guest post is the outcome of a twitter conversation between Brigitte and Stephanie Ashenden. It’s great to have a student guest-post on this blog!

Attending my first ever lecture back in my first year of university was without a doubt, one of the biggest eye openers to the competitive nature of the job market. I may have been one of the few students considering a science career in my class at school, but I was suddenly made aware that I would be competing against not only the 200 students in the lecture hall, but the students in the years above, as well as from other universities. It was clear that to stand out you had to not only be a top student but you had to have something many others didn’t have. It got me thinking of how I could achieve this; grades are of course important but often the heaviest weighting marks reflect the ability to perform well in an exam situation. Yet I find that employers want their employee to have set skills such as presentation giving, time keeping etc and these important skills are always a part of a degree but are often weighted far less. Having completed an undergraduate degree that was taught by four different departments, with all modules and assessments being compulsory, I would like to take this time to reflect on completing a degree that required multidisciplinary skills. My degree title was Forensic Biology with a Year in Industry. I was mostly taught by the school of bioscience, focusing in areas of immunology, physiology, pharmacology and biochemistry but also had compulsory modules from the schools of physical science, anthropology and law.

Forensic science and the law

Being taught by four departments was a wonderful insight into the world around my core subject as well as how it all could connect to form a beautiful eye-opening story. Each year I would complete a module in law, seamlessly connecting laboratory science in with the law and how it aids society. We studied countless cases where the scientific evidence had been the deciding factor in prosecuting somebody, a collective effort of law professionals, emergency personal and dedicated scientists. However the physical science side of this showed the harshness of the work for those working in science for the law. Forensic science is one of the hardest and most tedious jobs in science, where a single mistake can have your work deemed unusable in a court of law. Simply forgetting to change your gloves from one room to the next can cause doubt that the evidence you are presenting is without contamination and of course in criminal cases the defendant must be proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Science communication and the law

In my final year, as part of the forensic side of my degree, we needed to learn how science is communicated to people outside of science in various methods, focusing mostly within a legal setting. Being able to write, defend and explain science to law experts and a lay jury. I was required to write a 12,000 word laboratory report which was read by seven experts. I then had to stand in the local Crown Court and defend my work in front of a mock court. I enjoy talking about science to people but for this assessment my confidence dropped into my stomach when the man before me left the court in tears. I was picked up on a couple of minor spelling mistakes where I was asked whether I had written this report with any kind of care and perhaps if I had made these careless mistakes could my results be relied upon. When I replied I had not been careless with writing my report I was questioned if my mistakes were intentional and thus should I be allowed in a court of law. I merely insisted it was a typographically error for which I apologized and after a short while we progressed onto another part of the report.

Bringing it all together

I ended up receiving and award for this assessment and truthfully I think a reason for that was being able to draw on different experiences from the different areas of my degree. It had required me to understand what was required of me as a scientist within the law, work as a physical scientist, understand anthropological terms and describe biological processes in lay man terms. Not only that but in my spare time I enjoyed being part of the universities television station and drama societies which had given me the confidence to stand up in-front of a crowd. I think it was probably one of the most valuable assessments I ever did at university.

However, although being trained to look at things from multiple angles did sometimes help to achieve the best result, it did have its downfalls. You were sometimes just expected to know everything. In my final year I was the only person on my degree and had to discover what was required of me without the support of others in my situation. Different faculties and different departments expect different things from their students and being thrown in the middle of that at varying stages of the degree meant I always had to adapt and take on new concepts much faster than other students. In my final year I had to write an essay for a humanities module, but unlike the other students in the class who all had at least three years of writing essays in the particular style required of them, I was like a first year doing my first ever essay for the department. Of course I was still marked as if I had been mastering that style for three years.

Despite this, because I had to adapt and learn so fast, it gave me huge advantages in other areas. Firstly, assessments and deadlines often collided with each other, in the last three weeks of my first term in final year, I had eight large assessments including a 10,000 word report which were all set and due in these three weeks. Although this was a lot of work to manage these around attending lectures and laboratory practicals, I succeeded. Whereas during a student-staff meeting student representatives in my department had requested their three assessments to be better spread out instead of having them all in those three weeks.  I really think having to jump between so many different departments really made me manage my time and adapt fast. Yet although I was able to cope with more work, more work was created by not having a degree where all modules backed up each other. There were modules that I did where everyone else in the class had already encountered certain topics that I hadn’t done at all and so had to spend even more time researching and learning the topic from the beginning and as all of my modules were compulsory I couldn’t change that.

Going out into the world

The other area being able to adapt and learn fast was during my year in industry which was spent researching antimalarial in Thailand. Moving to Thailand for the year was an amazing experience, and will remain one of my most precious memories. Adapting to a new culture, learning a new language and learning new skills didn’t faze me as much as I thought it would. I felt prepared and enjoyed every minute of it so much so that upon my return I wrote a report for the university that helped new students understand what to expect and how to avoid culture shock.

Overall I am incredibly thankful for my experiences during my degree. Although there were many times I felt confused and tired, It made me feel prepared to tackle a brand new area, using bioinformatics to understand cancer drug resistance, for my Master of Science by Research. I spent my free time at university being involved in the arts, especially drama which really aided me in my presentation skills and I would love to combine both and make science accessible to everyone.  I think that whatever is in store in the future, will be challenging but truthfully I truly look forward to what is ahead and welcome it with open arms.

Stephanie Kay Ashenden Bsc (Hons)


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