The Laidlaw Scholarship

My first experience in a lab! Nerve-wracking and exciting. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

I nervously pressed side button on my phone to light up the notification screen to see it sitting there. The email I had been anxiously awaiting. I put the phone away, convinced it would be a rejection email, almost instantly thought, “sod it”, and opened the email. To my absolute astonishment, it read, We are delighted to offer you a place on the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme, 2019/20. Of course I was amazed and delighted, but little did I know, this opportunity would pave the way towards an incredible, exciting journey.

Lonely in the trench – the day I found out I had been offered a place on the scholarship. Photo credit: Chloe Rushworth.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The Laidlaw Scholarship is a unique opportunity across several universities around the world, open to first year undergraduates in any discipline to undertake a self-led research project under the close supervision of a chosen expert in that field. Funded by Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay, the scholarship allows students to gain valuable skills that wouldn’t necessarily be taught at undergraduate level (this was definitely the case for my project), as well as in-depth development centers where scholars can learn to harness their skills and identify areas for development. The two year period culminates in a Chartered Management Institute level 5 award in management and leadership. All this as well as a stipend to allow students the chance to really focus on the project and development without having to worry about financial barriers. An all round amazing opportunity.

Dr Nathan Wales ensuring I didn’t drop the samples everywhere. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

It was during my first year when I was sorting through my university inbox and spotted an email that had been sitting there for a month. I opened it and read about the opportunity and saw the deadline was coming up fast. I decided when I returned to university as a mature student that I was going to seize every opportunity and really throw myself into it, so of course I had to apply, what did I have to lose? I had never really done any proper ‘sciencey’ stuff but I knew this was the direction I wanted my career to follow and thought this could be a good gateway. So after a lecture on ancient DNA, I went to the front of the theatre and spoke to the unsuspecting lecturer, Dr Nathan Wales. It seemed no one had ever applied for this scholarship from the department and he had an idea for the perfect project that would fit the bill and fit the university research theme of environment and resilience. And here is a summary of the research proposal to give you an idea of what I had the chance to work on!

Historic corn smut: using ancient DNA methods to understand risk to UK agriculture
The aim of this research project is to extract DNA from historic and modern samples of Ustilago maydis, the fungal pathogen responsible for corn smut disease. By analysing genome-wide genetic differences in the historic and modern samples collected in the United Kingdom, it will be possible to ascertain when the pathogen first entered the region and which New World population(s) is ancestral to UK lineages. This analysis has two possible outcomes. If historic and modern pathogens are found to be closely related to many U. maydis populations across the Americas, it would suggest that the movement of maize diseases into the UK has occurred countless times from many dispersal routes. Alternatively, if the UK strains are exclusively related to one population from the New World, we could infer that the disease dispersal is limited by trade or other factors. For instance, it is plausible the U. maydis lineages from the United States are suited to cold winters, similar to those in the UK, thereby making it pre-adapted to Northern Europe. This would open the door for government-affiliated organisations that monitor crop pathogens to investigate what can be done to prevent further introductions of the pathogen. A “shotgun” sequencing approach will provide an unbiased assessment of recent gene evolution in the UK, revealing whether U. maydis is becoming more virulent. I anticipate my findings will encourage further research into agricultural resilience and how the UK can invest resources into the protection and sustainability of cereals in the future, key goals which supports the university research theme “Environment and Resilience”. With a focus on food security and sustainability, this research project would aim to assist in the development of methods and techniques to tackle agricultural vulnerability.

To my surprise, after a rigorous interview process, I was offered a place on the programme and became the first person in the department of Archaeology to become a Laidlaw Scholar. Before the research commenced, I attended a series of leadership and personal development centers. This involved some really in-depth activities which gave the scholars the chance to really dig deep into our personalities and leadership styles. I learnt an awful lot about myself in those development centers and I was able to take the information and feedback from the brilliant staff forward and use it to my advantage. I realised where my strengths were, no prizes for guessing presenting and networking were high up on the list, and I realised areas for improvement and could begin working on them. I learnt some valuable leadership tools and took part in some interesting sessions on teamwork. I won’t lie, some of it felt like therapy, drawing images of my life journey so far and identifying hurdles I have had to overcome and delving into just how I overcame them. But all of this combined with a big essay on my leadership style and personal reflection finished with a certificate from the CMI which I can pop on my C.V. and use the skills I took with me in my future career.

The extremely patient and brilliant Dr Nathan Wales, teaching me the necessary skills to undertake the project. Photo credit: Alex Holland.

The research portion of the project was probably more daunting than the development centers. I felt some real imposter syndrome on the first day in the ancient DNA lab. Putting on the white suit and entering the lab, I was put through my paces and thrown straight into learning ‘on the job’. I had acquired my samples from the Food Environment Research Agency and from Kew Gardens Herbarium and I’d just like to stop here and say a huge thank you to those involved from those organisations, who really took the time to make me feel at ease in the process and spent a lot of time helping me along the way. Learning the skills in the lab really opened up my eyes and made me realise that maybe, after a lifetime of arts and humanities, it would actually be possible to follow my dream of combining those skills with a scientific career. Our project is still ongoing and has become wider with more students analysing the data and writing up the results, I’m excited to see where it goes. Now the scholarship has ended and I’m entering the final stage of my degree, I know I don’t want a career in ancient DNA, and that was never the plan, but that’s not the point here, the point is what I have gained from the scholarship. I am extremely overwhelmed with gratitude for all involved for giving me the kick start I needed to actively pursue my goals. The confidence I gained by getting the scholarship and completing it spurred me on to nervously make contact with the people I wanted to work with going forward and by some magic, it worked and I am on my way to the career of my absolute dreams. It gave me the confidence to work and present at a number of science festivals on topics I never thought I’d be able to communicate, from micropropagation to isotopic analysis and even prehistoric cheese-making , starting my journey as a science communicator. Who knew that checking my emails that day and making the decision to apply would lead me to the path I’m on now. Never in a million years did I think I would be in a lab performing shotgun sequencing (I didn’t even know what that was a few years ago) on some ancient samples of a fungal pathogen, and that is not something that is normally done at undergraduate level so I know how lucky I am to have had the chance to do so. I suppose my closing message, as always, is just take those opportunities. If they feel right, don’t hesitate, just take the leap, they may lead you down some extraordinary roads.

For more information on the Laidlaw Foundation please visit:
The Laidlaw Foundation – Because education can change lives.

And here is me bumbling my way through my first ever podcast interview as part of the scholarship programme:
What Motherhood Teaches About Leadership – Charlie Bingham | Laidlaw Scholars Network

The Laidlaw Foundation, to whom I am forever grateful for taking a chance on me. Source: The Laidlaw Foundation.

Creating the key to open the door…

It was the day of the university open day. I was late. Very late. After navigating the busy roads of a new city, I flung the car into a parking bay, flew out of the drivers side, grabbed the pram out of the boot and with a baby under one arm and an 18 month old toddling behind me, ran through the doors of a glorious fifteenth century building. Out of breath and with two children in tow, I was greeted by a warm and friendly staff member who came out to assist this overwhelmed and very late potential new student. In that moment, I knew that this was the right place for me.

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Kings Manor, York. The sight that greeted me on that life changing day.

And that, folks, is how my journey as a mature student began. A 26 year old mother of two and feeling a little lost, like I had forgotten myself. I don’t know what made me decide to go back to university, I wish I could say it was some dramatic epiphany but it was just a desire to rediscover myself and start forging some kind of path for myself – which I suppose is an important revelation. I had had a varied work history up until that point. I had worked for two hours in McDonald’s when I was 16, a shoe shop, an abseiling instructor, a supervisory role at a log cabin holiday site before falling into a job as a trainee dental nurse which I stayed in until I started maternity leave with my first child. I fell pregnant again when my eldest was just nine months old and a difficult pregnancy followed by a premature baby prevented me from returning to work straight away. A long period as a ‘stay-at-home parent’ gave me a lot of time to really think about my life and what it was I wanted to do with it.

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Celebrating the decision I made to rediscover myself in the best way, through the medium of an overpriced gin.

It was actually when I was giving birth to my second child, that I had an inkling about what I wanted to do. Giving birth in a very clinical setting, hooked up to drips and machines and having a baby whisked away into an incubator really removed any potential to birth in a natural way and it really made me realise how much I wanted to learn more about our evolutionary story. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to follow a scientific path. I am and always have been, passionate about animals and conscious about the human impact on the natural world. I always thought how incredible it would be to spend a lifetime making a difference. I did not think it would be possible for me to enter a scientific pathway as I had always pursued ‘the arts’ in school- my side passion is for music and theatre and I still dream of being on the stage (only now as a science communicator rather than a West End star. Okay maybe a singing science communicator). As a child I would spend a lot of time wandering up and down the common behind our house collecting Victorian medicine bottles that were uncovered every time there was a large rainfall, pieces of pottery and rocks (that I would of course stick googly eyes on, everyone had pet rocks – didn’t they?). I had a lifelong interest in archaeology, I knew it would be an interesting degree to study but I knew it wouldn’t be the career I wanted to do long term. What I didn’t know is the doors that an archaeology degree would open for me.

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Last year I got the brilliant opportunity to assist with some data collection with captive gorillas. I am eternally grateful for this first experience.

So fast forward to January 2019, I was one term into my archaeology degree and having a brilliant time. The university had a great community of mature students and support for student parents and through that community I met some fellow students who understood the challenges of studying with young children. I was learning a lot, having fun and absolutely feeling I had made the right decision. But I still wasn’t sure exactly where my career would take me. An email dropped into my inbox – “Laidlaw Scholarship applications now open” – I clicked on it and read it. An opportunity for first year students to undertake two summers of paid research in an area of choice and while you’re at it, study for a leadership and management qualification. “Okay”, I thought, “what have I got to lose?”. We were part way through a module on archaeological science so I grabbed the chance and at the end of a lecture, I spoke to the lecturer who was totally willing to take me on as a supervisee and even had a project in mind that would give me the opportunity to gain lab experience and my first introduction to the scientific field. I wrote the proposal, went for an interview and one day, whilst excavating a wet and muddy Roman town in North Yorkshire, I opened my emails and found I had won the scholarship. I won’t talk too much about the scholarship experience, I will write another blog post about that in the future, but I will say that the opportunity gave me such confidence in my abilities and the gumption to just go for it and pursue exactly what it is I want to do. So after a couple of nervous twitter messages and a phone call, I’m now here finishing my third year of my degree and waiting to start a master by research in biological sciences, focusing on the welfare and enrichment of captive chimpanzees. It still doesn’t seem real and I imagine I’ll feel like this for quite some time! But choosing a degree that has given me a huge amount of transferable skills and taking a chance on an opportunity has worked, I’m finally entering a world I never thought I’d be able to.

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Conducting vital analysis (trying to work out what the witch marks at Creswell Crags could mean).

I suppose the message I want to send through writing this is, don’t ever feel like you can’t pursue your dreams. Even if the road to your goal is long and winding, there is still a chance. My journey is far from complete. I hope to become fully engaged in conservation and animal welfare. My absolute dream is to become a broadcaster and author, communicating important messages about conservation to the public (see, once a performer, always a performer). A few years ago, I would never have believed any of this was possible and yet here I am. So this one goes out to all those people out there, thinking about maybe returning to university, always wanted to do a degree but thought it was too late, it’s not. Begin your journey now, who knows what doors will open for you if you can just create the key to unlock them .

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Who knows what’s next on my journey, but whatever it is, I know it’s going to be amazing.