A Day in the Life: Medical Sciences

Interview: Alumni: Oli Purnell, BSc (Hons) Medical Sciences (graduated in 2014).

What extracurricular activities did you do outside of your degree?

During my undergraduate degree, I was elected as the student representative for medical sciences, which was a great experience that allowed me to improve my course based on student perspective. In my second year, I was elected as president of the Leeds University Skydiving Society, which was a brilliant opportunity and great fun. I worked with a team of five committee members, and we worked hard to make the society bigger and better. For example, we created a club website, held two Give It A Go sessions, more than tripled our membership, and secured a sponsorship deal with a major parachute manufacturer for three new rigs for club use at half price – £9,000! I was also elected the Leeds University Union Outdoor Representative in my final year. During my second year, I undertook a summer studentship in a neuroscience laboratory, where I researched neurogenesis in the spinal cord, gaining invaluable practical and research experience, something that has really helped me in my master’s degree. Finally, I rock climbed, ran, and worked in the Refectory.

What are you doing now following graduation?

I’m currently completing an MRes in neuroscience, researching chemokine regulation of the migration of stem cells in the spinal cord. Specifically, I am using cell fate mapping using immunohistochemistry and cell cultures, to understand how stem cells in the spinal cord move, the mechanisms by which they move, and how the chemokine receptor CXCR4 on these stem cells allow these to move towards their endogenous ligand CXCL12. It’s a very interesting project and may provide us with a greater insight into the role of stem cells in the spinal cord, and what cell types they differentiate into, which could ultimately contribute to our understanding of spinal cord injury. I’m also collaborating with the School of Design to create collagen matrices that I can bind with CXCL12 to study cell migration, and the School of Chemistry to understand how we can label nanobubbles with antibodies to target certain groups of cells, and their application in treating cancers.

What is your lifestyle like as a postgraduate student?

Kinda busy! I currently hold two part time jobs, the first being a demonstrating role teaching undergraduate biomedical sciences students, and working with them in their taught laboratory sessions. Secondly, I work alongside a gentleman with cerebral palsy that is writing an online guide for wheelchair users – all to pay for the master’s. In terms of research, you get out what you put into it. It’s essentially a 9-5 but at times it can be restrictive, whilst at other times it can be quite flexible; for instance, I can demonstrate during the day and make up the time in the evening, but if I have a lot of work to do or need to play catch-up, I may need to work at weekends. This isn’t too often though!

What are your plans for the future?

I have recently gained a place on Swansea University’s postgraduate medicine course, so I will be beginning that in September. I would like to continue studying neuroscience where possible and am a big fan of dexterity tasks, so am considering a career as a neurosurgeon, though I know this is a difficult path. My undergraduate dissertation was a Science in Society project, so I taught school pupils, and would like to continue teaching also. Specifically, I would like to be involved in the education through this kind of dissertation project; enthusiastic undergraduates make excellent teachers, as well as giving themselves new skills and experiences, so I would like to work on this in the future. Away from my studies, I would one day like to look at a little property development in Swansea!

Any advice for those applying for a masters or medicine degree?

Official routes of application are good and work, for the majority of the time. Very often though, it’s who you know. Get to know your supervisors if you can. If you really want something you need to be proactive; introduce yourself to a supervisor, and not only will you get to know them, they will get to know you. From my experience, they are much more likely to hire you!

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

I edited the book “Chaotic Harmony” by Otto E. Rossler, the scientific polymath’s interpretation of questions ranging from Expectancy of Evolution to Chaos, and Benevolence theory, combining the disciplines of science and philosophy. I’m also a qualified phlebotomist!

Interviewed by Laura Riggall (President)

Photography by Anna Woolman

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