Hi Life Sciences Student Blog Readers!
I’m Hope, a Biochemistry with Italian undergraduate. Everyone always asks the same question when I tell them what I study – Why would anyone ever mix science and languages?! Aren’t you just making life 10 times harder for yourself? I never quite knew how to answer (apart from that I kind of liked biology, chemistry and Italian at school so mixed them together and came out with Biochemistry with Italian!) and I’m not going to lie, I was sceptical myself. Now, after two years of juggling the two, I have finally been able to put them together during my placement year, and I have realised exactly why I chose to study a life science with a modern language, and why it was one of the best choices I ever made.
I’m currently on placement in Florence, Italy and have spent the past 7 months working in a cancer research lab in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Biomedical Sciences at the University of Florence.
At the beginning, probably like many of you, I wasn’t sure how a modern language placement would differ from a normal industrial placement. However, apart from being able to do your placement, and therefore live, in an exotic country for a year, the placement aspect is pretty similar. I’m working as part of a small and diverse research group carrying out a project on oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer cells and their resistance to aromatase inhibitors (a type of endocrine therapy). The most exciting part of my work here is to be carrying out research that has never been done before, and therefore no one knows exactly what the outcome will be! I was even lucky enough to get acknowledgements in 2 published papers for my contribution within my first 6 months in the lab. This was super rewarding and, believe me, it makes university work way more exciting when you see your own name when reading an article on PubMed!
Day to day work in the lab is pretty laid back. Generally, I can come and go as I please, so long as I get all my work done and make good progress with my placement, which often means getting in super early in the morning because I’ve had nightmares about my cells dying – they really have become like my pets! But it also means taking coffee breaks every 30 minutes and being told to ‘leave early and enjoy the sun’ on a Friday lunch time – so I can’t really complain!
However, it’s not all about eating pizza in the sunshine, of course there is a lot of hard work involved too! I spend about half my time in the lab taking care of my cells, treating them with various drugs, and carrying out hundreds of experiments on them. Although it didn’t seem like it at first, after a few months of working in the lab, the experiments really do become like second nature. The other half of the time is spent, ultimately, scratching our heads. Researching, reading, discussing, researching some more. But this is the most exciting part, no one has done this research before, no one can say for sure what will happen or why. And that’s the reason I have come out of this year fuelled with a passion for research, motivated to work towards a career in cancer research.
Without a doubt my main worry was how in the world I would manage to work in a research lab IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Especially as in second year I struggled to understand labs in my own language. But, believe me, I was pleasantly surprised. Although I’m the only English person in the lab, I’m actually in some senses at an advantage to everyone else, as English is the language of science. I therefore find myself spending a lot of my free time, whilst waiting for a gel to run or for a centrifugation to finish, translating words, explaining grammar rules, correcting papers ready for submission, or most often, explaining just why we drink so much tea in England. This is something I really enjoy, and not only has it given me the great experience in scientific writing, it also gives me the opportunity to ask a million questions on Italian words, phrases, grammar, etc. And, here we are, 7 months later, and I find myself thinking and even sometimes dreaming in Italian. To say a placement abroad is the best thing you could possibly do for both your lab/scientific and language skills is definitely an understatement.
But amazing language skills and lab experience are not the only benefits of studying a ‘with a Modern Language’ degree. On top of all that you get the absolute pleasure of living in an amazing, beautiful city like Florence for a year. Excuse the over-enthusiasm, but I’m well and truly in love with the place. Of course I’m biased, everyone says that about their placement location, but seriously, look how beautiful it is!
Not only do you get the experience of living in a different country, speaking a different language, and embracing the daily life of a completely new culture, you get the opportunity to meet awesome people not only native of your host country but from all over the world. In the space of the past 7 months I have eaten the best paella I have ever tasted (made by my Spanish roommate), learnt a bunch of super important German words (hay bale = Heuballen, kitchen roll = Küchenrolle…) on a roadtrip across Italy with 3 Germans, watched (and triumphed in) England vs. Italy at the amazing Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and cooked a proper British Sunday Roast for 40 foreigners, to name but a few! Not to mention the amazing trips I’ve had the opportunity to go on. My favourite one was for sure spending an exam/deadline free Easter visiting friends in the amazing city of Munich, most of all for the delicious German beer and sausages.
So, overall, it’s been a pretty amazing year. I’ve become fluent in Italian to the point where I dream in it, become skilful enough in the lab to the point that I think of my cells as pets, made friends for life from all over the world who I have already planned visits to see when I return to Manchester, spent every weekend discovering places everyone dreams of travelling to, as well as ones I never knew existed, and above all developed both academically and personally, developing skills and qualities that will help me for the rest of my life. I can’t believe that in a few months’ time it’ll all be over and I’ll be back looking longingly out of a university library window longing for the land of pizza, pasta and red wine…
So if you are considering doing a modern language placement, I have two words for you: do it! (Oh, and you now know the (very long winded) answer to everyone’s ‘why do a science and a language’ question).
Thanks for reading! And good luck with your university or placement applications, or whatever else it might be.