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Lab Learning: nurturing scientific minds through immersive work experience with UKHSA’s public health microbiologists

28th February 2024

Pre-2020, not many of us would have imagined living through a global pandemic, and may not have considered the work that goes on in labs across the world to keep us safe from the threat of another.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is responsible for protecting every member of every community from the impact of infectious diseases, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents and other health threats, and a group of Y13 students from St Margaret’s School were lucky enough to attend a two-day workshop at the Zoonotic and Acute Respiratory Section (ZARS), one of the two sections within the Respiratory and Vaccine Preventable Bacteria Reference Unit (RVPBRU), at UKHSA in London, last term.

Providing insight into the world of a public health microbiologist, the students learned about the role of the lab and its important work. They were given a practical demonstration of Gram staining and were able to observe different Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria under the microscope and could identify Legionella as Gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria. Students also observed Legionella cultures on agar plates under the microscope, and practised streaking sterile water onto the agar plates.

On the second day of the workshop, the students observed extraction of DNA using the Kingfisher DNA extraction platform and had the opportunity to set up a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay for the detection of Legionella pneumophila Serogroup 1 using the Rotor Gene PCR platform. PCR analysis was also demonstrated and after a short test our students were awarded certificates – with the average score being >90%!

Work experience is a crucial component of a student's educational journey, providing them with real-world insights and practical skills that go beyond the classroom. But for aspiring scientists, gaining access to such a dynamic and critical real-life lab environment can be challenging and both staff and pupils at St Margaret’s would like to take this opportunity to thank the team at UKHSA for welcoming us into their workplace and providing such a transformative experience for all those that attended.

One of our students, Mahima commented,

“I really enjoyed the work experience because it was insightful to see what it’s like to work in a lab and carry out techniques like streak plating myself”

An opportunity like this has benefits that extend way beyond the laboratory. From starting to prepare students for successful careers in the scientific and healthcare sectors, to shaping well-rounded individuals equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to contribute meaningfully to the broader scientific community, work experience offers a unique blend of academic enrichment and practical skill development, allowing our future scientists to begin to engage with real-world challenges and cutting-edge technologies.

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