Evaluating the Durham STEM experience: reflections of a graduating biology student

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My university experience was definitely not what I thought it would be like.

Describing my three-year biology course as ‘heavily affected’ would be an understatement. After all, multiple strikes and a pandemic did reduce the amount of ‘normal’ teaching time that I received to about a year.

However, the few months of ‘normality’ that I did experience in my first and final years studying biology at Durham were nothing short of fun. We had lecturers that were passionate about their fields and it translated into their teaching (as demonstrated through a catchy stem cell cell-fate song that really should be published).

The labs that I did get to do were incredibly rewarding and allowed me to utilise knowledge, visualise concepts, and prove theories. Coming from a relatively small state school, I was simply over the moon to be able to use test tubes that weren’t chipped and pipettes that weren’t leaky, let alone higher-end equipment.

Most importantly, with the course designed to encourage cross-linking between different modules and extra literature, I was able to develop a more holistic way of thinking when approaching any topic.

Covid-19 forced us to halt our studies during Epiphany term in my first year. The unfortunate events we faced were uncontrollable, so I have to admit that the department did try very hard to make this peculiar time a lot more easy and enjoyable. They set up a rather well-run online learning platform and we all adapted to learning through Zoom.

I was simply over the moon to use test tubes that weren’t chipped

However, it would be dishonest to not mention the sheer disappointment that I felt when the promised practicals-filled second year turned into a series of weird (and rather saddening) online ‘labs’ that involved watching experiments conducted through a screen, and one time a lecturer whipping up dubious concoctions in his home office.

During such a difficult time, I found that the staff were easy to reach out to. They worked with my college to figure out the best plan for me after my parents passed away and have provided me with constant support since.

Many of my peers facing troubles also found that the department was understanding and accommodating towards their tough and sometimes last-minute situations.

But I’ll be honest, I think I would’ve appreciated it even more if they regularly updated the module handbooks, because an unexpected lecture series on Covid-19 was heavily triggering – trying not to have a mental breakdown every time really was a psychological workout.

Surprisingly, the pandemic also brought about unexpected opportunities: I’ve been working with the Insect Neuro Lab within the department since the summer of 2020. Through this, I was able to practice some wet lab techniques that I missed out on and make connections with collaborators in Germany. Though I won’t be continuing in this field, I’ve gained valuable research experience and made friends with many people that I otherwise wouldn’t have met.

It’s funny to think that before university, I was set on becoming some sort of evolutionary biologist. Now, I am pursuing the field of immuno-oncology, and have secured a postgraduate opportunity in London. Excitingly, I will still be able to use the concepts of evolution to explore cancer tumour progression and the corresponding immune response – a crossover I definitely didn’t see coming.

I’m glad and proud to say that I’ve made it to the end

Many of my peers are in the same position, looking to further their studies through a master’s or doctorate course. Their destinations include universities in the UK and in various other countries such as Germany and Sweden. Perhaps we’re all desperately trying to lengthen our time being students because we feel like we’ve been robbed of a ‘proper’ university experience.

Despite popular belief, not all of us are seeking a future career in academia. The department, and the science faculty, regularly promote jobs and opportunities in other sectors.

For example, biology graduates have gone into pharmaceuticals, civil services, medicine, law, and even film-making. They have provided us with a plethora of information and support since we were freshers, reassuring us that there is no ‘correct’ or ‘expected’ career path, and that the skills we’ve gained throughout the course will be useful in any sector.

To say the least, my university experience was… different. I didn’t get to live out my lab-coat dreams. Instead, I got to watch many hours of lectures with typo-filled captions. But I’m glad and proud to say that I’ve made it to the end. Only the best-adapted will survive – so that’s something, right?

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