I’ve been working from September 2016 – June 2017 year in the lab of one of the top plant research institutes in the world, the John Innes Centre. There are only two interns given a place each year at the institute and although I was not one of them, I was still taken on as an ‘intern’ with a voluntary role which allowed unique flexibility for what I did day to day.
For the last nine months I’ve been helping a 2nd year PhD student, Nicola, with part of her project. Nicola is working on Nitrogen use in forage crops, and a previous student had found that a humic substance called ‘Fulvic acid’ is possibly a biostimulant that could improve the growth of plants without the use of fertiliser.
I normally work 9 – 6 everyday on finding out if there is a replicable phenotype when plants are given this chemical, and finding what the chemical is exactly. There was no pressure on me succeeding but I knew I both wanted to impress the scientists around me, and find an answer for myself.
I started out taking part in the PhD training which covered biological, chemical and general safety. Nicola then started teaching me through actual practice, the various lab techniques I’d need to complete different assays; I took notes on absolutely everything (see picture below) and was lucky that I did, as it wasn’t long before she let me loose to start collecting data on my own. From this point on, I was effectively a full PhD student able to use anything I liked, whenever I liked. I could book any room or equipment, access all facilities and use any chemicals available.
I began by growing plants and supplying them with various amounts of Fulvic acid and Nitrogen to test a few hypotheses, but there was no regular phenotype appearing. I read papers on previous work and adapted my methods to pin down what effect this substance was having, all the while having various meetings and seminars.
I was given a space in the regulated glass houses where I grew other crops too. These I tested for their protein and chlorophyll contents, as well as photosynthetic rates. By the end of the internship I had identified a few phenotypes in a few species but unfortunately have not had enough time to find any genetic markers or a mechanism for the effect.
This was only one part of my project though. The other was finding out what this Fulvic acid was. Everyone at the JIC is top of their field so are always happy to help if you have any questions and are genuinely interested. The lab above mine was filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of the latest in mass spectroscopy equipment, and experts who are always available to help, even more so when given a challenge by an eager intern who has no idea what he’s doing. I was in a great position here, where other people with the same problem would have to book months in advance and pay upwards of £90/hr. I could just walk in and have a go whenever the machines were free!
Lionel Hill, a wizard of LC-MS (liquid chromatography gas spectroscopy) was the first port of call. We put in varying concentrations of my Fulvic acids but the results that came out made no sense, there was something very polar in the solution as well as high concentrations of plastic. We tried a few more times with different mobile phases but with no luck, so I decided to try somewhere else. Throughout the placement I ended up being trained on almost every piece of equipment in the room and innumerable more in other labs. The final verdict came after weeks of tweaking, coupled with the wisdom and patience of Paul Brett. We finally managed to isolate the components of Fulvic acid (pictured above), although this only accounts for 70% of the solutions and we don’t know what the other parts were – science is fascinating and infuriating!
The long journey and finding an answer(ish) at the end was a priceless experience, worth every second. Throughout the time here I wasn’t just a lab volunteer, but like I said, taken on and accepted as a fellow PhD student. I gave seminars, organised events, held a position on the student voice committee, worked on the institute bar, talked to visitors, presented at meetings, attended awards, took part in days out – even teaching others how to use the equipment I had been trained on!
This year opened my eyes to the possibilities of research, the raw freedom of exploring something new in any way you can. I was given a unique opportunity because I was not limited in what I was permitted to do, nor was I pressured to get results (because I was not actually a PhD student with deadlines to meet, even though some students thought I was). The other students welcomed me with open arms and invited me to all their social events. My housemates were UEA students which gave me access to the university lifestyle as well, where I joined various societies and sports clubs. Words cannot express the years of experience I feel I have gained in 9 short months, this will truly stay with me forever (and of course make my CV look great!)