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Nuffield Summer Placements: How my interest in the brain led me to do a placement in Neurorehabilitation

I have always been interested in how this three-pound structure is essentially us. It controls everything from what we think to what we do, and yet there is still so much that we don’t know about the brain. This makes me wonder how much is there that we’re not aware of about ourselves…

Unlike most Nuffield Students, I took on the challenge to try and organise my own placement. This might sound quite scary at first, but I realised it wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, it gave me much more freedom in choosing where I wanted to go and what I wanted to spend four weeks of my summer holiday on; meaning I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Although I have to admit I might have been one of the luckier ones out there as the first email I sent landed me a placement at the neurorehabilitation unit of the University of East London!

The biggest fear that someone has before starting somewhere new is the thought of how they will fit in and whether they will get along with others. It was exactly the same for me when I started my placement. Sure, I was thrilled about it, but at the same time I couldn’t help but worry. How I could possibly work and adapt in an environment where everyone would be so experienced in the field? I knew pretty much nothing about neurorehab and was just curious about their research on the brain. Luckily enough, everyone in the lab knew exactly how I was feeling.

Throughout my placement, I worked with two PhD students who were also my supervisors. They made sure that I was safe when working in the lab and led me through the project, but more importantly, they ensured that I was comfortable and liked what I was doing. I’m very grateful to have had supervisors who were very approachable and genuinely wanted me to enjoy doing my project. We decided that it would be best for me to conduct my own mini project, instead of working on the data from an existing one. This gave me the chance to learn more about what it means to work in research, as I was part of it from the start. From doing background research and acquiring results to discussing them and coming up with a conclusion, I did it all. With some help of course, but it was essentially my own project.

My research involved investigating how the ability to use our hands to perform tasks – called manual dexterity – is dependent on our age, gender, hand dominance, and attention by conducting a pegboard task. I promise it’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. A pegboard is an instrument with loads of small keyhole-shaped slots in it, and the goal for the participant was to complete the pegboard by placing a small peg in each of these slots whilst I timed them. They were asked to do this with their right hand, then their left hand, and then repeat it all for the second part of the experiment where they would also be tapping with their free hand to see how this would affect their reaction time.

It’s a behavioural test and uses quite a simple concept, however, its applications can be very wide. For example, it is commonly used to see how stroke patients are recovering, to compare motor skills between a clinical population and a healthy control group, and to help us better understand conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, dysgraphia, and schizophrenia to name a few.

My project entailed testing healthy participants and researching the reason behind the results I had obtained, most often by reading previous studies that had already been done and were similar to mine. Through this, I learnt a lot about the science behind motor coordination and the areas in the brain that are responsible for it.

However, this formed only part of my placement. Yes, it was what my project report was based on, but I was also involved in two more projects working alongside my supervisors. Expanding on my own mini project I worked on a project by one of my supervisors which looked at the brain activity of someone whilst they were doing the pegboard task, and another one looking at motor skills during a robot reaching task!

Thanks to the Nuffield Foundation, through this invaluable experience not only did I gain knowledge on the human brain, but I also met some amazing people who shared their love for research with me, and developed loads of skills ranging from data analysis and practical skills to written communication and time management. This will not only impress any university that I’ll apply for but is also guaranteed to come in handy throughout my current and future studies.

In addition, it certainly gave me some ideas about what I might like to do once I graduate. So to anyone considering a Nuffield research placement or about to start theirs, I would like you to really embrace this opportunity and make the most out of it because I assure you that you’ll come out with much more knowledge and experience than you did before you started.