When I was applying to go to university many moons ago, I was conflicted over what I wanted to study. I loved science, and as I progressed through my A Levels, my fascination for chemistry became increasingly clear. Having attended the open days and met people in the department, I was set on studying chemistry at Bath. However, there was always a part of my heart that wanted to pursue French, and I very nearly went for it. I ended up reasoning with myself that I could improve my French by myself, but I couldn’t teach myself chemistry.
I knew that Bath were strong for their placement scheme, and I wondered if there was any possibility of doing a placement in France. Years back during an open day in the chemistry department, I asked about such opportunities. I was informed that it was certainly possible, albeit rare. It was enough for me to go full-steam ahead with a chemistry degree at Bath.
Before I start chatting about my placement experience, I should probably issue a disclaimer. SECURING A PLACEMENT IS NOT AN EASY PROCESS! The placements team are fantastic, supportive, and encouraging, but the process can be overwhelming and sometimes disheartening. Without going in to detail, I had to fight hard for it. I also know people who applied to dozens of places and only secured something towards the end. If you end up going through this, please resist the temptation to compare yourself to your peers!
Things worked out, as things usually do with time, and I spent my placement year at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). The ESRF is a large-scale user platform for X-ray radiation in structural determination, which basically means that you can use X-rays to look at atomic structures. For this you need an X-ray source, which in this case was a synchrotron. Shown in the picture on the left, a synchrotron is a large particle accelerator ring with many experimental stations coming off it to allow scientists to study their samples.
My placement was based in the Life Sciences Group, and I was given a project on the structural studies of HIV integrase, a horrible enzyme involved in the HIV infection process. I wanted to try and discover what its atomic structure was and how it binds to DNA, hoping to aid future studies involving the inhibition of this enzyme. I know, it sounds super cool. I spent approximately 70% of my time in the lab, 20% of my time in talks, meetings and seminars, and 10% of my time drinking coffee. I was in France after all.
The way the synchrotron works is that scientists from all over the world apply for experimental time, known as beamtime. This beamtime is like gold dust – you have to write a fancy research proposal, and have it accepted by a panel. It costs thousands of euros per day, and when you get to do your experiment, you often have to work through the night. It doesn’t sound incredibly appealing… but it was a bucket-list experience for me! During my time at the ESRF, I participated in three beamtime experiments and ran one of my own. I consider this a privilege, and it has left me even more curious and even more keen to participate in such activities in the future.
So what about the city I called home for a year? According to the map above, Grenoble is one of two cities in France. It is surrounded by three mountains on the edge of the French Alps: the Chartreuse (also a famous green liqueur from the region – a bit grim), the Belledone, and the Vercors. With major ski resorts only an hour away by bus, it was easy to see how the people of Grenoble connected with the outdoors. In addition to the mountains, Grenoble is a major research hub full of international scientists, and a small haven of culinary excellence.
During my first week, I was invited to participate in a Via Ferrata (pictured above). I’d never heard of this, but it translates from Italian as ‘iron path’ and it’s sort of like rock climbing but the rock faces are smooth and you use metal footwells to pull yourself up and along. They’re free to use, as long as you have your own harness and helmet. 200 metres up, I realised what an extreme introduction to the city it was!
Before starting my job in Grenoble, I had never been skiing before. I was told on my first day that I wouldn’t get away with not going skiing at some point - I was pretty scared, but keen to give it a go! My first-time skiing was a bit of a disaster; I basically got pushed down a mountain and told to get on with it. I guess it was like the technique of putting babies in a swimming pool with no floatation device (I may have just made that up – let me know). I was lucky enough to go skiing several times during my placement in Grenoble and have just about managed to obtain some basic skills (without meaning to brag…).
*Nerd alert* Based on what I mentioned earlier, you won’t be surprised that I was excited to speak a lot of French during this year. My laboratory supervisor was French, and she would only speak to me in French. Everything I learned about my project, I learned in French. Of course, there were times that she’d say something and I’d stare at her blankly and ask her to explain what she meant. At this point, she’d laugh and write new vocabulary on the lab whiteboard. She’d also help me out (and forgive me) when things went wrong in the lab. She was, and still is, my guardian angel!
I had a tip-top year in France, pairing cheese and red wine, and having coffee on my balcony on a warm Sunday morning. I am grateful to the chemistry department for helping me to make this happen. If there’s something that you want to do, go talk to your placement team! You never lose anything by asking.