Out of the classroom and into the lab
Our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program offers young high performers a competitive edge and real-life lab experience
It struck Dr David Riglar one day in the research lab that his undergraduate science studies hadn’t prepared him for the laboratory environment. “I do have a strong memory of realising that doing research science is very, very different to studying science in a bachelor’s degree, and the whole process uses a lot of different skills,” he says.
He also discovered the creativity involved in research science which had not been apparent in the classroom. “It involves a lot of thinking outside of the box and I feel like it’s a lot more dynamic than it seems like when you’re often rote learning things in a lecture type format.”
At the time, Dr Riglar was a participant in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at prominent Melbourne research institute WEHI. The program is designed to advance high-performing STEM students in Victoria by providing them with real-life, paid research experience under the supervision of expert researchers. In Dr Riglar’s case, he worked closely with a post‐doctorate researcher on their cancer research project for 18 months.
In UROP, Dr Riglar was exposed to a range of different scientific techniques and methods that have served him throughout his studies and career. Reflecting back on his placement, David says it was impressive to be included in research experiments central to the project to which he was assigned. “[I completed] a lot of work with proteins and mammalian cell culture and some of those techniques I was learning were beneficial for me throughout my honours and PhD, and even into postdoc and beyond.”
Dr Riglar remained at WEHI to complete his honours and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology, before moving to Harvard Medical School in Boston to undertake post‐doctorate training in synthetic biology.
He is now an established scientist, leading a research lab within the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London, United Kingdom. His lab looks at how the microbes that live inside our intestines function, and how they change what they’re doing in different parts of the digestive system and as a result of inflammatory disease. Given the scientific community has started to appreciate the important links the gut microbiome has to many different diseases, Dr Riglar’s work is a meaningful contribution to current medical research.
Looking back on his career trajectory, Dr Riglar says UROP provided him with experience and a competitive edge in his postgraduate applications and other work opportunities. “There’s the prestige I guess of the UROP program and also the confidence that supervisors have, seeing that you’re already working at a lab.”
He also says that receiving an hourly salary through the UROP program, in place of his usual part-time work as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, freed him up to be immersed fully in the research. “I think [it] was really key, being able to invest in my career rather than something I wasn’t going to be doing in a long-term sense.”
Even after many years, working in research continues to surprise Dr Riglar. He sums up his career path as a “progression, an eye-opening experience all the way along”.
UROP is an opportunity for talented undergraduate science students to gain experience beyond the classroom and to discover and be immersed in research.