In the summer before my third year studying biomedical science at the University of Warwick, I had gotten the opportunity to work on an 8-week project in the Alberti Lab.
I had a rotational tutorial meeting (Each tutor group of students was assigned different professors who assigned research papers to read through and practice discussion) with Fabrizio Alberti and he assigned us a few papers, one of which being his discovery of Scleric Acid. This meeting sent me into a bit of an internet research spiral because the concept of natural product research and the potential it had fascinated me. It also prompted me to reach out to Fabrizio to further ask about his research and the opportunity to see how members of his lab work, leading me to question whether he had any space for a URSS student (The Undergraduate Research Support Scheme is a program by the University that helps support students undertaking a research project - https://warwick.ac.uk/services/skills/urss/) and one of his PhD students, Sophie Jin, had offered me to do a side project connected to hers.
My project would revolve around two main aspects: one is testing the metabolite production of specific fungi species, Trichoderma koningiopsis, in different media types and the second is creating a vector for heterologous expression in Aspergillus oryzae of a hybrid NRPS/RiPP biosynthetic gene clusters within T. koningiopsis.
This first image on the side is a bioassay plate. Bioassay is a method that involves identifying the potential toxicity of a compound against living organisms. This plate has Saccharomyces cerevisiae (a yeast species) and I added filter disks on top to load the crude samples I extracted. As you can hopefully see there is one large clear circle around the bottom right disk, which is the positive control that contains an antibiotic (Geneticin) that is known to inhibit the growth of the S. cerevisiae. There is also a small clear circle around one of the samples, second to the top left which is the crude sample extracted from Trichoderma grown on CMP (Czapek-Dox Malt Peptone). This method helps identify which media results in the most bioactivity.
The second image is more connected to the second part of my project. It is an E. coli plasmid with an additional gene inserted in it. This is a design of a plasmid (pEY) that I successfully inserted a RiPP gene (ribosomally synthesized and post-translationally modified peptide) into using Gibson Assembly. Further steps are involved but I won't get into too much detail and the goal is to express the gene within A. oryzae, a mould species used frequently in research, and identify its possible function.
How did the project go?
For the first few weeks, Sophie had taken control of what we did every day, explained the techniques and methods involved, etc. After she had covered everything, I was given independence in organizing my days and lab work which was both exhilarating and terrifying. Independence when controlling day-to-day life and studying is entirely different to that of leading a project. However, this allowed me flexibility in adjusting my time, pushed me to think ahead, made me more accountable for mistakes and provided me with a greater sense of confidence in myself. This is not to say I became some sort of lab genius overnight, I still ask questions very often and need to be shown again certain techniques. It is a steep learning curve, and I am still climbing.
Another barrier for me was the critical thinking aspect. I had to rewire my knowledge to be able to connect it to a more practical application rather than a general understanding. I also had very little faith in some of my actions or thoughts, I would constantly second-guess myself. Sophie helped me significantly with this, she would ask me questions about the process and prompt me to try to figure out why we do certain things. At the start, I couldn’t answer most of her questions, partially out of fear of being wrong, but eventually, I started answering and realized a majority of the time I knew the answer or was close to it and was just doubting myself. It also taught me that it's okay to not know and to make mistakes, it's those moments that you learn from the most.
How was the environment?
One main aspect I noticed was how friendly and connected the people in the lab had been. The first day I had been around the lab, they had prepped a cake and a set of cards for someone’s birthday. Everyone in the lab is always kind enough to offer advice or answer questions. They had also planned a barbeque and a trip to the fungarium in Kew Gardens during the summer I spent, which were such incredibly wholesome events.
During the Kew Garden Visit, we had actually gone mushroom hunting (Highly recommend it because it was good fun). Some photos from the day!
The main lesson I got from this experience was to just go for it (and to never forget Controls!). If I hadn’t reached out to Fabrizio about his research or asked him about URSS, I never would’ve gotten this chance. I was able to improve my confidence, develop my technical skills and grow as a person. A lot of my hesitations and concerns in considering academic research faded and I have a new door open to consider now. I got lucky in obtaining a project I genuinely enjoyed and being with such an incredible lab group. I am so grateful to the Alberti group, with a special thank you to Sophie and Fabrizio, for all the support and kindness I received.