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LifeLab – live!

On 28 and 29 September five Cambridge science institutions will be joining forces to bring LifeLab to locations across Cambridgeshire, including Queensgate and Cathedral Square, Peterborough. Part of European Researchers Night – the largest public science event in Europe – LifeLab is a fun programme of pop-up, hands-on science events featuring everything from ‘science busking’ and stalls to comedy – as well as the opportunity to meet and chat with people doing ground-breaking research. The Moment talked to Raghd Rostom, a genetics researcher involved in the project about her inspirations, the excitement of science and why research matters.

You’re currently doing a PhD in genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge – but what led you into research?
I had a fairly standard path. I did an undergraduate degree and masters in natural sciences and during that time did some research projects. I just found I really enjoyed that side of it – finding out, being inquisitive, and doing something where you can see the impact. Now I’m focusing on the genetics of infectious diseases.

What does that actually involve, day-to-day?
It’s varied quite a lot over the course of my PhD. Some days I spend in the lab doing experiments and generating data, and at the moment I’m spending quite a lot of time on the computer analysing that data and trying to understand what we’ve found. With regard to the experiments themselves, I’ve been growing human skin cells that people have donated to look at how they respond to viral infections. We have hundreds of samples which can show us how different genetics dictate different responses to viruses.

Why focus on viral infections?
We’re constantly faced with infections, including newly emerging infections which can evolve very quickly, making them quite hard to prevent and to treat. Bacteria have their own machinery so we can target them with drugs, but viruses use the machinery in our own cells and that makes them much harder to treat.

It must be very satisfying, knowing you work can literally save lives…
The great thing about genetics is that it not only helps us understand the infections themselves and how they work, but also how we can create personalised medicines, based on each person’s genetics. That means we can target treatments and tailor preventative action much more to the person. So, yes, it’s quite exciting!

Are there ‘eureka’ moments?
Occasionally! But one of the things that people perhaps don’t realise is how often things don’t work… Like any other job, there are a lot of days when you don’t manage to get what you want working or get things done, but then you have those days when things slot into place or you have a breakthrough, and they are what keep you going. A lot of time and work goes into producing exciting results that make it into the news or journal articles – but that involves a lot of failed experiments with things going wrong! That’s the scientific process.

What are your future plans? To continue with this research?
I’ve actually decided to focus a bit more on the business side after my PhD – how we can take research, commercialise it and implement it. The next step along, really. People often are not very aware of careers that take research knowledge and apply it to a slightly different area, such as business, communications, outreach or the ethical and legal side. There are so many different paths you can take having had research experience.

You’ve done quite a lot of outreach science work before LifeLab. What do you learn from them?
The preconceptions that people have about research are quite interesting. Often people don’t realise that you can do research as a job. When I go into schools they think of scientists as crazy people with wild hair and lab coats, and then you meet the students and they go: ‘Oh! You’re kind of a normal person…’ They also tend to think that the science is very complicated and that they’d never understand it, but when you actually talk to people they get to grips with the concepts quite quickly and see that research can be exciting. That’s very rewarding. The work we do here at the Wellcome Genome Campus is about understanding genetics, and that reveals a lot of things that people can relate to day-to-day. Of course there’s lots of work around understanding genetics in relation to cancer, and most people know someone who has been affected by that. When I’m talking to people they will often ask about diseases that have affected members of their family, and it can be quite moving to see how it has impacted upon them personally.

So this is a kind of understanding that people just can’t get from reading books or articles?
I think it’s partly having the opportunity to ask questions. When you read something you may have questions that you can’t get answers to, but you can when you’re talking to a researcher. And then sometimes we get questions we’ve never thought of or which catch us off guard, and they make you think about something from a new angle, so it’s nice having that feedback mechanism, taking a step back from the research and remembering the bigger picture and why it’s exciting. There are often questions that you don’t know the answer to straight away, and those conversations are some of the most fun. Challenging, but fun!

What are you most looking forward to with LifeLab?
I’m really looking forward to bringing this to Peterborough. In Cambridge there are lots of science centres and events, but LifeLab is going to places where there aren’t necessarily very many of those. And being in Queensgate, where people will just be wandering, shopping, it means we’ll meet people who may not normally go to one of these science events – having conversations, showing them something cool and maybe encouraging them to find out more!

LifeLab is a collaboration led by Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), University of Cambridge, Babraham Institute and MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology to bring European Researchers Night to Cambridge and Peterborough. This is one of four successful projects funded in the UK and one of 55 across the whole of Europe.

 To find out more, go to: www.camlifelab.co.uk

“There is a huge range of research and innovation taking place out there, with lots of different roles making it all happen. In LifeLab, we’ve created an inspirational mix of activities and events, working with dozens of researchers, technicians, computing scientists, engineers and social scientists who help make our region one of the world’s leading biotech hubs. LifeLab is about getting people excited about the science while also making everyone aware of the growing career opportunities right here on our doorstep – opportunities many may not have considered before.” – Dr Kenneth Skeldon, Project lead and Head of Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement

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