My name is Henry and I’m a third year Neuroscience student on placement in the USA! I’m lucky enough to be working in the University of Nevada Reno’s Physiology and Cell Biology department, looking at energy utilisation in a giant synapse called ‘the calyx of held’. So far it’s been an absolutely invaluable (and all-round-incredible) experience and the three months have already transformed me from a bumbling undergraduate into a (mostly) competent lab worker!
“But what actually happens on placement?” is the question that I think crosses most people’s mind when they sign up for industrial experience. Sure, you know you’ll have to do ‘a project’ which you’ll have to write up to earn those sweet, sweet percentage points towards your final grade. But beyond that is kind of a mystery, right? Now, I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, but I can at least give you a good rundown as to life as a student worker in the lab.
I arrived in Reno mid to early August, and for the first two weeks was mostly paperwork and general lab safety training while Sean, the head of the placement scheme here, found us supervisors that matched our research interests. As a Neuroscience student, I was delighted to be placed in a synaptic physiology lab. Then as August rolled into September we moved onto more lab-specific training. As it turned out, my lab needed someone to generate fluorescent images for them to demonstrate that they were indeed knocking down their protein of interest and show visually how this changed mitochondrial structure and distribution. Having loved the ‘Dynamic Cell’ module in second year, I was really excited to try the techniques we had learnt about for myself in a real lab environment.
Since then I have learnt many different techniques, from animal handling to tissue preparation and confocal microscopy. While I still have room to improve, I feel like I’m getting the hang of these and am able to actually contribute to the work done by the lab. I have just started learning the basics of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, which would make for, as my supervisor put it, a ‘sexy’ project. Once I have these foundations down, me and my supervisor will sit down and flesh out a title. Then I can get to work on the project I plan to submit for my placement report!
Now, as a placement student, you’re expected to work hard. But that shouldn’t stop you from having fun outside of the lab too! And this is where Reno has really shone. Uber has just arrived to the city so getting around has become much easier and affordable. Midtown, Reno’s Northern Quarter equivalent, is one of our favourite haunts. Full of independent coffee shops and bars, there’s something for everyone. As an ice hockey fan it’s been great to be able to go to a sports bar and watch my favourite team play (Go Sharks!) while enjoying a local beer.
Perhaps even more exciting is Reno’s surroundings. Perched in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s, I’ve rekindled an old passion for the outdoors. With Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains only a 40 minute drive away, it’s been really easy to get outdoors. In the first couple of weeks, our faculty took us for a BBQ by the shore of Lake Tahoe. With temperatures in the low 30’s the weather was perfect for swimming. To be honest it was a truly surreal experience. The water was so clear I was convinced it was salt water, so it was a pleasant surprise when it wasn’t (even if it was a little chilly). Tahoe also has some of the world’s best ski slopes, with the local mountain, Mount Rose, even closer than the lake. We’ve just started to get heavy snow and it shows no sign of stopping. The locals are predicting the best ski-season in years and I can’t wait to get back to snowboarding. It’ll be a big step up from Chill Factore (an indoor ski slope in Manchester) I’m sure!
Something that I didn’t know about Reno before I arrived was how close to Northern California we are. In September we took a long weekend in San Francisco and I’ve completely fallen in love with the city. We managed to snag an apartment at the top of Market Street overlooking down-town San Francisco, a truly unforgettable view. Having coffee on the balcony watching the sun rise over ‘The City’ is a memory that will stay with me forever. We spent the weekend exploring the city, shopping in the Castro and of course around Union Square. The next day we hired bikes and cycled through Golden Gate Park and up to the bridge itself. It was a tiring day but something I really recommend if you ever get the chance. Since, I’ve been back twice (travel is cheap, $20 for a return bus ticket) and I know we’ll be going again.
But that can wait. Right now the US is abuzz with Thanksgiving celebrations and I was lucky enough to be invited to my flatmate’s for the event. In preparation, we made pies for the big day, so I introduced our friends across the pond to Banoffee Pie, and they were very grateful for it. After we were finished baking, we made the thirty minute drive down south to his parents place followed by a few beers as a night-cap and an early night ready for the festivities.
Thanksgiving itself was a very busy day. We were up early for a light breakfast before the Thanksgiving football games began (first up was my newly adopted team, the Detroit Lions. I made sure to brush up on some football beforehand). We then juggled football, beer and cooking for the rest of the day. The rumours of Thanksgiving feasts are no word of a lie. We sat down at around at 5pm to two turkeys (one oven cooked, the other deep fried… You couldn’t make it up) with rivers of gravy and mountains of mashed potatoes. All washed down at the end with a coffee and a nap to ensure we were ready to hit the mall at 8pm for the Black Friday sales. I guess the deals are just too good to hold off until Friday itself.
And that’s my adventure so far! Already this has been one of the highlights of university for me and has not only helped me firm up my future plans, but also given me a truly unique experience living abroad. I’ve made some great friends and memories here and I’m certainly looking forward to more!
Thanks for reading everyone. Best of luck on your placement applications!