Our School of Translational and Experimental Medicine (STEM) team have been working on continuing to support all of our students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously we reported that our Research Methods training courses have now been moved online, to ensure that everyone can still access them.

Our BRC supports a range of courses including PhD programmes and the King’s College London MRes (Master of Research) in Biomedical and Translational Science programme. Students rotate through three placements before transitioning to their PhD laboratory at the end of the academic year. Our current cohort of MRes students started their laboratory rotations in September 2019. These students were therefore due to begin their third rotation during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant that their proposed projects are being rapidly adapted to accommodate these changes.

Meanwhile many of our PhD students have changed their focus, or adapted their ways of working in light of the crisis. Supervisors have devised projects to embrace computational elements and data analyses or involve systematic literature reviews and novel experimental design programs not previously included, which may take a significant amount of dry-laboratory time.

Students have all made contact with their supervisory teams to discuss modified approaches during this unusual period at the start of the rotation to virtually integrate into their laboratory teams, participate in laboratory group meetings and discussions and complete a remote training experience.

Image of PhD student Robert Page

We spoke to a few of our current PhD students to find out more about how they have been adapting.

PhD Student Robert Page has been redeployed from working on his PhD on CAR-T cell immunotherapies, to working in a team led by Dr Rocio Martinez-Nunez to enhance the diagnostic capacity for SARS-CoV-2 at Guy’s and St Thomas’.

He said: “We have spent the last four weeks converting a space in the King’s College London Immunobiology Labs  into a lab for molecular diagnostics. We have also benchmarked several different RNA extraction kits and qPCR reagents against the ones currently used for diagnostics, which should help reduce the strain on supply-chains, which are very stretched at the moment.

“It’s been very challenging, but also very interesting to be involved. It’s quite inspiring to see scientists and clinicians collaborate so quickly and openly with each other to find solutions to the problems this virus is causing. I’m very grateful to my two supervisors, Dr Sophie Papa and Dr Esperanza Perucha, for supporting me in temporarily changing my focus from my PhD to this effort.”

Image of PhD student Mahedamah Rehman

Mahedah Rehman is a PhD Student studying cellular organisation in stem cells. She said: “Before the lock down, my supervisors had already suggested that we make preparations to work from home, hence by the announcement of the lockdown, I had already made arrangements to allow me to work from home such as taking hard drives and my back up files.

“Since then, I have had to change my original plan of studies and work, as I had intended to begin lab work. Mainly, this included a further focus on reading, and accessing data files for alternative work related to my overall PhD project and hypothesis. This was aided by the fact that my supervisors hold weekly one to one and lab virtual meetings on a regular basis. Not only was this a chance to find out if our skills were needed to help with any research related to COVID-19, but also to catch up with all the lab members and ensure that they were well and discuss our personal projects.

“My department also continues to hold the weekly meetings, seminar and even journal club, which allows some semblance of a balance and a reprieve from this challenging situation and focus on the science that we all love. It has also given me an opportunity to explore different platforms and practise various skills for bioinformatics, and allows me to look into a greater scientific scope from my original RNA-sequencing to protein expression, differential transcripts and networks analysis.”

Julie Nihouarn, a PhD Student undertaking a project on foetal brain development in gestational diabetes has been working to carry on her research at home. She said: “For me the main change has been like for a lot of parents (I have three children) which is to juggle any work with childcare, homeschooling and activities which encourages wellbeing in our home. There is still a lot I could do from home in terms of data analysis and writing, however my PhD work has been greatly limited to approximately two to three hours per day and a little longer on week-ends. But this is something us parents learn to accept and I am so grateful to my supervisor for being extremely supportive of the situation.”

Professor Rebecca Oakey, Training Lead at NIHR Guy’s and St Thomas’ BRC and Dean for Doctoral Studies at King’s College London, said: “Our PhD cohort has risen to the challenges presented by the current crisis, either by joining current research and diagnostic efforts at Guy’s and St Thomas’ or by adapting their way of working at home to complete data analysis and written tasks in the lockdown. By everyone contributing to research and offering to maintain morale by joining online laboratory meetings, journal clubs and research seminars, our community of post graduate research students are staying productive and motivated. We look forward to rejoining non-virtual research again in the future.”

Claire Dossi, BRC Research Training Manager, supports the students to complete the qualification. She said: “This has been a challenging time, and it’s been impressive to see how our students have adapted.

“We’ve been checking in with the students with the expectation that they will all be able to carry out a project in their chosen laboratories, despite the current situation, in order to successfully complete their MRes degree. The aim of all of our STEM work is to make sure that we have the next generation of health researchers, ready to tackle the biggest health problems facing the world. That hasn’t changed, but in the current situation, we are having to adapt what we do and how to ensure our researchers are safe.”

For more information about our training, email BRCtraining@gstt.nhs.uk.

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