Scholar's Report: The Forefront of Scientific Research

by Benjamin Schwabe, 2018 PWIS scholar

Amazing things:

Sometimes amazing things happen quite unexpectedly. For me I was busy getting ready for my A-levels, completing an all-consuming EPQ project and about to go on a school trip to CERN when I read about the Peter Watson International Scholarship…

After a rushed application and an exciting visit, with a presentation, to Cambridge, I won this amazing opportunity to visit the NIH in Washington, DC.

A fabulous experience at the forefront of scientific research:

Arriving in Washington was a culture shock. Everything is bigger than in Europe! Arriving at the NIH campus next morning, reinforced the sense of scale and my excitement. The day kicked off with a visit to the National Library of Medicine and an opportunity for me to present my EPQ project to the directors of the National Eye Institute and others - including some PhD students. I think it went well and I certainly got some interesting questions. The talks from Craig Pearson and Andrea Solano about their projects and Juan Pablo Ruiz about the nature of research, and what to be careful of, were really interesting and a nice start to the trip.

I enjoyed meeting Dinusha Rajapakse, her PI Graeme Wistow and the whole group over lunch. It was particularly interesting to hear about how they made the best of the diverse expertise of different members of the group. They made the most of each scientist’s different specialisms to help each other advance their individual projects.

The visit to NCATS (National Centre for Advancing Translational Sciences) was also exciting. It was very cool to see the ways they were using automation to speed up the science process, particularly with regards to drug discovery. Our discussion with Tudor Badea in the afternoon was fascinating, providing an insight into his research into neuronal circuits, and using genetic knock-ins – targeting specific groups of cells in the eye – to better understand cellular function. I was also intrigued and enthused by his personal ethos behind his motivations to do scientific research.

We were very lucky to speak with several principal investigators at NIH, these discussions were in many ways the highlight of the trip. I learnt a lot about the current research and I could feel that I understood an overview that I otherwise would not have had.

I particularly enjoyed talking to Samer Hattar on the following day about his work on intrinsically photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells (ipRGCs). He conveyed a strong enthusiasm for the topic and explained his research in a clear, engaging and very interesting way.

Meeting Wei Li and Abhishek Sengupta was also very interesting. It was fascinating listening to Wei Li about his research in Ground Squirrels, although I found it a little bit more ethically challenging than work on mice. Spending time with Abhishek Sengupta was great as we got to see some of their science first hand. I was particularly interested to see a gene gun for the first time, as well as some of their advanced optical microscopes.

The talks from Nicholas Ader and Lana Grasser on the last day at NIH were thought provoking, Nicholas’ research using cryo-electron microscopy to study intrinsic cell death caused by breakages of mitochondrial membranes was very different from Lana’s project looking at how yoga and dance can help reduce avoidable deaths in minority populations, but both demonstrated just how many places you can go with a research career.

The final day in Washington was spent primarily at the Science and Engineering Festival. This was a massive event, and very cool, but probably had a younger target audience than I was expecting.

Non-science things:

The trip also gave us some great opportunities not directly linked to science research. Our visit to Congress and the Capitol on the first day was amazing, particularly meeting Chas Goldman and seeing some of America’s surprisingly recent history. Visiting the National Archives on the first day was intriguing and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the Constitution. It was again another reminder of how recent America is!

The visit to the headquarters of National Public Radio was refreshingly different. Meeting Rhaina Cohen, another Marshall scholar and producer of the Hidden Brain podcast was inspiring.

I enjoyed hearing about Art Enables and their work supporting a few adults in Washington with learning disabilities to sell artwork, as well as meeting a few of their very prolific artists.

The National Air and Space Museum and National Gallery of Art were also great. It was amazing to learn more about the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes and to see the Friendship 7 capsule. I also really enjoyed touring some of the exhibits at the National Gallery of Art.

So what did I take home?

I knew nothing about eye research before the trip, but I found it fascinating. I have been thinking for a while about a career in research, and found it very appealing. Having seen some very exciting research, about which I knew nothing, I now realise that I could be excited by a huge range of research. Now the challenge is how to choose!

I guess the next most stunning thing I found was the “can do” attitude of everyone. The USA seems to be very young and dynamic. I love the history and tradition in Europe, but was excited by the youth and dynamism of the USA. Can you imagine how strange it seems that the Wright brothers, from just a few hundred years ago, feature prominently in the Capitol?

The final amazing thing was the enthusiasm and excitement that I gained from all the NIH researchers that I met. It seemed like many of them were fulfilling their dreams. Who can resist such enthusiasm?