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Research and Intercalation at Med-School

By Wesley McLoughlin

At Edinburgh, intercalation occurs in the third year, with more than 20 degrees to choose from varying from Stem Cells, Surgical Sciences to Zoology. If the degree you want to study isn’t offered in Edinburgh, you can also intercalate at another medical school in the UK.

I chose to intercalate in Anatomy and Development. This was an attractive opportunity for me, due to a number of reasons including the experience of cadaveric dissection: a really informative privilege to have – textbooks, apps and videos simply cannot compare! Whilst the degree sounds quite focussed, it gave me a lot of choice in terms of picking elective courses and my dissertation project. Almost all diseases have an anatomical link, be it gross anatomy or sub-cellular. Often, the roots of the pathophysiology of diseases can be traced back to the developmental stages.

In addition to providing an extra BMedSci degree, intercalation offers hands-on lab and research experience. This provides helpful experience for future careers and also earns more points for foundation programme allocation, when you graduate! (Points available for additional degrees, publications, and poster presentations at national conferences etc. 1)

My research project was conducted across a 7-week period (initially planned as 12-weeks but curtailed by COVID-19) in a lab in the Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences, part of the Queen’s Medical Research Institute.

Whilst lab-work can sometimes seem overly technical and inaccessible, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up. Complex experiments such as CRISPR are really only a few steps away. That being said, equipment and compounds can be very expensive or dangerous, if used incorrectly, so it’s important to be careful! (a few mL of antibody can easily be >£2k). Almost all procedures follow protocols like a recipe, so lab work is just a matter of practice and taking precautions. Some procedures (like in-situ hybridisations to mark specific-RNA) run across a few days, so it can be very annoying if one mistake spoils an entire week’s work.

My research was focussed on using Zebrafish, as a model system to study adipogenesis (generation of fat cells) and manipulate it to alleviate the harmful effects associated with obesity. This is based on the adipose expandability hypothesis, which suggests that fat cells (adipocytes) have a maximal expansion limit. When excess energy is converted to fat, these cells expand to accommodate and store the additional fat. When the cells expand beyond their limit, fat spills out and wreaks havoc, leading to the negative effects of obesity!

We used a variety of techniques including CRISPR to study the effects of silencing genes known to control adipogenesis, and RNA In-Situ Hybridisation to investigate the locations of these mutant genes.

I think a lot of people miss out the chance to consider a multi-faceted and exciting career, when they don’t give research a go. Not only can it be an independent career path, but it can also be a helpful component of a successful clinical métier. Many leading clinicians complete research alongside their practice or are academics with honorary roles in hospitals and GP clinics, so they can work in both aspects of medicine simultaneously. Research doesn’t just have to be during intercalation – there are many opportunities for summer holiday projects and a lot of funding on offer (eg. Wellcome Trust, MRC, usually ~£250 pw for 6-8wks - helpful summary of opportunities here .2)

2. A neat and helpful summary of many of the programmes and scholarships on offer – a good starting point!

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