TUESDAY, 25 AUGUST 2020At the beginning of our final year as PhD students, we sat down for a mid-experiment Chelsea bun break at Cambridge’s iconic Fitzbillies to discuss our time volunteering as mentors on the in2scienceUK scheme. The programme pairs up secondary school students from underrepresented backgrounds with mentors from research labs to provide an insight into what STEM research is like. Intriguingly, we found many similarities in the challenges facing us in our final stages of the PhD and those of our students, thinking of the first steps along their career paths.
Our motivation to take part in the in2scienceUK scheme stemmed from our experiences of pursuing lab summer projects as undergraduates, which ultimately influenced our decision to embark on PhDs. For us, those experiences gave us the information we needed to make informed decisions to follow a research-focused path. We felt it was important that similar opportunities to the ones we had were available to students in the process of deciding their next steps.
Now coming to the end of our PhDs, we realise that there is uncertainty at all stages along a career path, making support and mentorship just as important at later career stages. It is crucial as a community that we increase our efforts in supporting the next generation by learning from our mistakes and making sure the difficulties we faced aren’t passed on.
For us, taking part in the in2scienceUK scheme provided many benefits. The most rewarding part was seeing the enthusiasm of our students when they discovered the beauty of transparent zebrafish embryos, or the visualisation of fluorescently tagged proteins in cells. Seeing our work from a fresh perspective uncovered a lost appreciation for our research, and also reminded us that the science we get to do on a daily basis is a privilege.
We spoke to the founder of in2scienceUK, Dr. Rebecca McKelvey, about navigating your interests and making a difference at work. The former teacher and Head of Science at a school in East London, who founded the scheme upon a return to academia to pursue a PhD, was committed to addressing the problems she observed during her teaching position — inaccessibility to STEM research. Rebecca explains that 'as a member of the local community, I didn’t realise that the world of research existed, and I was amazed at how many smart and brilliant PhD students and researchers were at my doorstep'. Keen to put this brain power to use in training the next generation, and promoting social mobility and diversity in science, Dr. McKelvey set up the in2scienceUK scheme. Over the next four years of her PhD, in2scienceUK grew and adapted to involve more scientists and reach more students. The charity holds two aims for the future: 'To continue expansion of the programme nationally, and to ensure the programme is relevant and develops the skills that young people in the workplace need'. When it comes to addressing inequality, Dr. McKelvey explains that 'degrees from top universities, which are dominated by private school students, are a crucial step towards entering a top level profession'. One of the steps we should be taking in order to see improvement in the levels of inequality we see in research is to advocate and participate in increasing access to the highest ranking university education.
When asked to give some advice to researchers wanting to contribute, Dr. McKelvey said 'in addition to getting involved with in2scienceUK (...) finding ways to open your doors to the local community is a good place to start. I believe in getting young people in rather than researchers going out. It’s the research that’s inspiring, seeing is believing!'
If you are interested in getting involved and hosting a student this summer, contact the team at in2scienceUK.org.
Susannah McLaren is a PhD student studying developmental biology at King's College and Anna Yakovleva is a PhD student studying virology at Fitzwilliam College. Artwork by Maria Yakovleva