Kate Quinlan - Honours in Molecular Bioscience

Why do honours? If you are looking to improve your career prospects, open the door to further academic study, or simply indulge a passion, then honours is your next step. For many students, honours is an introduction to further academic research with many using it as a pathway to undertake a PhD. For others, it is a stepping stone to an interesting career in Science and an opportunity to extend one's knowledge on a topic that interests them. Read all about the highlights of Kate Quinlan's honours year.

When did you start thinking about doing honours?

I don't really remember when I decided to do honours. Once I started studying Biochemistry and Genetics in second year I knew that these subjects were what really interested me. I guess at this point I started to consider a career in the biological sciences and honours was a logical step towards this.

What influenced you to do honours?

I did a summer project between second and third year and enjoyed working in a lab. By this point I thought that I wanted to end up being a research scientist and honours is really an important step if you want to end up doing research. Honours is an excellent opportunity to gain lab experience but, more importantly, to see if research is what interests you. It gives you a chance to try out research for one year and see if it is for you. If you get to the end and decide that it is not what you want to do then you can leave with an excellent qualification and do something else. Alternatively, if you decide that you like it then it acts as what I see to be a necessary step in your career as a scientist.

How did you go about finding a supervisor/project?

I started by making a mental short-list of different supervisors who had given us lectures and who I thought worked on interesting topics. I also asked demonstrators and people who I knew who had done honours before for any insight into what lab might be the best place for me. Then I went and had a chat to three different labs and chose Merlin Crossley's lab because of the lab environment, the sort of techniques that they use and the lab reputation. I don't think that the project is very important (although I'm sure others would have different opinions and there are exceptions to this rule). Science can move very quickly and what has been set as an honours project could have been done by the time you start or not be a very important question any more because of other developments in the field. I suggest selecting the lab and being flexible about the project. Once you start you will be helped to develop a project that is interesting and relevant at that time (and not 6 months ago).

What was your honours project about?

In my honours year I studied a particular transcriptional co-repressor. We were interested to see how this protein regulated gene expression. I made a number of mutant versions of this protein to infer which parts of the protein were responsible for different cellular functions and how these functions were linked. Projects such as these increase our understanding of how gene expression is regulated.

Can you describe what the honours process was like, from the experimentation stage to writing up your thesis?

At the beginning of the year I spent time with my supervisor and other members of the lab learning about my project. Most labs don't expect you to know anything more than what you have learned in third year before you start and will guide you in reading about your new topic area and understanding your project. At the beginning you write a project proposal and give a talk and this process allows you to get a good understanding of the topic.

Then I started doing experiments. Real experiments in the lab are completely different from doing a undergraduate practical because, for the most part, they don't work. This is part of the nature of science because you are always trying to do something that has not been done before. If it had been done before you could do it easily as you would know which experiments to do and how to do them but obviously there is no point if you already know the answer! I remember when Merlin and I first discussed my project and outlined all that I was aiming to do I said, "and what will I do in the third week when I have finished all of that?" Very diplomatically, he said "Well, let's just see how you go with this first and then we will think of some more experiments once you are done." Obviously the project took the whole year but I think that this comes as quite a surprise to most people.

I think that one of the reasons that research does not suit everyone is because you have to be quite good a dealing with disappointment because often things don't work. I think that the elation that comes with a good result is only heightened by the effort that it has taken to get there but not everyone is like this. This is another reason that honours is good, as you can see if you are suited to research.

Anyway, I spent every day doing experiments and then talking to my supervisor and others in the lab to work out what the results mean and to design follow-on experiments. By the end of the year I had generated a body of work and sat down, again with my supervisor and colleagues to decide what my work was telling us and how it should be packaged up and written for my thesis. Then I wrote my thesis with lots of consultation and proof-reading and submitted.

At the end of the year everyone does a final talk and it is amazing to see how much people have improved in their understanding of their projects throughout the year and how much they have achieved. Over the year you become more and more experienced and take more responsibility for your project as you mature. I think it is important to note that honours students are not expected to think of a project and to know all the answers. Labs really support and guide honours students and they will not be thrown in the deep-end.

What were the highlights of your honours year?

  • The fantastic people that you work with. Labs are actually very social places. There is always someone to talk to and the best science is done when there are lots of people bouncing around ideas. You develop great friendships with members of the lab and I was particularly close to Natalie Bartle who did honours in Merlin's lab at the same time as me as we shared the whole journey of honours together. The School of Molecular Bioscience (SMB) also has an excellent social society, Amoeba, who organise events throughout the year like BBQs to coincide with each honours milestone (like at the end of the proposal talks), trivia nights, movie nights and a ball. These are a great way to get to know everyone in the school and to socialise (and commiserate) with other honours students. The social side of research is still one of my favourite parts of my job (which is unexpected as scientists are always portrayed as antisocial nerds but this couldn't be further from the truth.)
  • The sense of achievement. Throughout honours you really mature and develop as a scientist and get to put everything that you have learned in undergraduate into practice. I got an immense sense of achievement from working on my own research project and learning how to interpret the results and fit them in to what was already published in the literature. It is amazing to learn enough about something to be able to write a whole book (thesis) on it by the end of the year. You become the world expert in your small topic and that is really quite a rush.
  • The discovery that I loved research and that I had found what I wanted to do for my career.

Did doing honours have any influence on where you’ve ended up after uni?

Yes - honours is essential to the career path in research that I have done since. Following my honours year I went to Cambridge University for a year as a research assistant to have a break from study and to see the world. My honours degree from a well known university helped me to get this job on the other side of the world. In fact most other countries don't really have an honours year and students straight from undergraduate courses have almost no practical experience. So I found that having this experience made me much more attractive to overseas employers. After my year abroad I came back to Australia and did a PhD back with Merlin Crossley. Honours is really a very important step if you are considering a career in research as your employment options are limited without this qualification.

What are you doing now?

Following my PhD I moved to the Institute for Neuromuscular Research (at the Children's Hospital at Westmead) and worked as a post-doctoral scientist for two years. I was recently awarded an Australian Government (NHMRC) fellowship to move here to the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (in the UK) to work as a post-doctoral scientist for two years and moved here to take up this position 2 months ago. I am now working in a world-renowned laboratory on embryonic stem cells and it is fantastic.

Do you think honours is for everyone? Who would you recommend it to?

Honours is not for everyone. You have to work hard and this can be a shock as it is really more like having a full time job than in undergraduate where you are only at Uni for about 25 hours a week. Quite a lot is expected of you although most people thrive in this environment. It is certainly not something that you should do if you expect it to be easy or think that you will coast through without doing any work. I guess for some people the lowlight could be that if you don't like your honours year then a career in research is probably not for you (although some people have a bad honours year for reasons outside their control and go on to be great scientists). By the end of the year everyone does some serious thinking about their next step depending on how they have enjoyed their experience.

I would recommend honours to anyone who is interested in research. The experience will tell you whether it is the right career path for you. I'm sure that having an honours degree is useful for those who end up going from honours into other career paths but I am less able to comment on this as I know most about what I went on to do. I would think that having an honours degree would be more valuable than a 3 year degree even if you left science as it shows a higher level of commitment to your studies and is a higher qualification.