The International Undergraduate Summer School aims to provide undergraduate science students with an in-depth experience in a research intense environment. During the course the students gain experience and knowledge across a diverse range of skills, are given the opportunity to get a taste of life as a research scientist and are provided with experiences and information to inspire their future career choices.
Since its inception in 2010 the course has brought over 200 students to the Norwich Research Park for an 8-week research focussed course. Evidence1 suggests that undergraduate degrees do not deliver all of the skills required in key STEM2 areas. These areas include plant breeding, interpretation of complex genomic data, research software engineering, maths, computational skills, imaging and interdisciplinary sciences.
This scientific training course targets a key group within the education system to address this specific challenge. Each year, 16 students are selected from a large number of applicants to attend the residential course for eight weeks.
The Summer School is an interdisciplinary course and attracts undergraduate students from maths, physics, chemistry, biology and life sciences, and environmental sciences which brings a valuable mix of knowledge, backgrounds and perspectives.
Three research institutes on the Norwich Research Park are involved in delivering the course: the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and the Earlham Institute.
As part of the course students undertake an eight-week research project based in a laboratory or research group at one of these institutes.
In addition to their research project, students are taught valuable skills and gain knowledge, through weekly training sessions. This includes topics they may not have experienced before and which represent skills gaps, from programming and modelling, through to an introduction to science communication, and how to give a presentation. Whilst on the course the students also visit the JIC field trial station for an introduction to strategic crop research.
The course integrates the research project and additional training with a strong social component. Students are housed together at the University of East Anglia and the Friday training event is followed by an evening of social activities, such as cooking pizzas together. As a result, many students form lasting friendships with each other.
The impact of the International Undergraduate Summer School
The Summer School was started in 2010 by Professor Enrico Coen who felt that the John Innes Centre should give talented undergraduates a formative experience of research and the associated skills.
The success of the course can in part be judged by the number of students who go on to undertake scientific research as a future career, not only as postgraduate researchers, but also in research and development careers within industry. Unfortunately, an evaluation of all students and their career paths is not possible.
In 2019, a survey of students who attended the 2016 and 2017 Summer School found that 10/15 respondents had gone on to do scientific PhDs, with an additional two specifying postgraduate studies (which could include Masters degree courses).
Of the students that went on to study for a PhD (n=10), six had selected either plant or microbial research projects and the remaining four were studying the related science subjects of computational biology, developmental biology, entomology and genomics.
Professor Enrico Coen, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre suggests, “The biggest impact of the summer school is that it has changed the outlook of many undergraduates, giving them invaluable skills that have informed their career choices. Many decided to pursue a career in research because of the summer school experience. Some decided research wasn’t for them which also helped them clarify their career goals.”
Dr Carole Thomas, the John Innes Centre’s Head of Directorate until 2021, was instrumental in setting up and running the International Summer School until her retirement.
The programme is supported by Samantha Lingwood, who organises the summer school and provides important pastoral care, she is on hand to ensure that students maximise their experience are enjoying the course.
Summary of the impacts and benefits of the Summer School
- Approximately 200 students from across the world have received training and gained experience at undertaking a research project in plant or microbial science.
- Students are provided with an in-depth experience of what it is like to work as a research scientist, allowing them to make informed decisions on their future careers and whether they would be interested in a taking up a laboratory-based role or a PhD.
- Many students go on to take up PhD positions, on average 1 – 2 students per year group return to the John Innes Centre to do their PhD. These students have a head start from the experience that they have gained.
- Participants from around the world return to their home countries to complete their undergraduate degrees before embarking on their future careers, improving scientific networks around the world.
- Participants gain experience of vulnerable skills to help deliver potential postgraduate students, post-doctoral researchers and independent researchers with knowledge and experience in these areas.
Dr Marco D’Ario, a 2016 Summer School cohort who is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University explained how valuable he found the training he received: “The summer school was a critical experience for my development as a scientist. I had the chance to work with cutting-edge microscopes, learn how to program imaging software and it allowed me to talk about plant development with experts in the field. The summer school gave me the opportunity to expand my learning beyond what I learned at university. I was lucky to share this experience with the talented students, with whom I discussed various scientific interests during the course.”
Bryony Yates, 2018 Summer School cohort and PhD student at the John Innes Centre identified why the summer school was valuable for her: “I was hosted by the Caroline Dean and Martin Howard groups and my project focussed on natural variation in flowering time in Arabidopsis thaliana. I came into the summer school unsure whether I wanted to undertake PhD in the future; I left confident and determined that it was the right path for me. I particularly benefitted from spending time with two different types of research groups – the Dean group does experimental research whereas the Howard group develops computational models. I was fascinated by both approaches and excited that you could combine them in a single project – this ultimately inspired my choice of PhD, where I use both experiments and modelling to understand stem development.”
William Bezodis, 2021 Summer School cohort and PhD student at the John Innes Centre said, “The International Undergraduate Summer School was an extremely valuable experience for both personal and career development as well as an enjoyable one. My project provided me with a huge amount of confocal microscopy training which has already been useful in my subsequent master’s degree work and I’m sure will continue to be a useful skill. Working on a paper involving my Summer School work and collaborating with scientists of different disciplines has given me tremendous insight into the scientific publishing process.”
Funding for the programme comes from several sources including bursaries from societies such as the Genetics Society, the British Society of Developmental Biology and the British Society for Plant Pathology, as well as support from the three Institutes involved in the programme and the John Innes Foundation.
1 BBSRC and MRC review of vulnerable skills and capabilities, BBSRC and MRC, updated in 2017. https://www.ukri.org/publications/bbsrc-and-mrc-review-of-vulnerable-skills-and-capabilities/
2 Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths