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A chance to fail quickly and learn fast

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program is a launching pad for high-performing students to pursue meaningful careers

Halina Pietrzak spends her days tackling one of the world’s most severe public health problems, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year and infects hundreds of millions more.

Halina Pietrzak, former participant in CSIRO’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program ©  Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

As Research Officer at Australia’s oldest medical research institute, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), Halina studies the negative impacts of malaria-induced inflammation on memory T cell differentiation.

These cells are unable to carry out their normal task of “remembering” and responding to malaria, leaving people vulnerable to reinfection.

She hopes her findings will inform vaccines to protect against malaria in the future.

Halina was launched on this meaningful career path thanks in part to participating in CSIRO’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, also known as UROP.

The program gives high-performing undergraduate students the chance to gain hands-on experience in a lab, under the supervision of a research scientist and working alongside other research staff and students.

Halina was bitten by the biology bug back in high school (pun intended!). “We got to visit the botany school at Melbourne University for a practical session and that’s where I met a few PhD students and used a pipette for the first time! In my head I knew that was it,” says Halina.

Determined to get some lab experience as a young Bachelor of Science student, she applied and was selected in 2016 for UROP. Halina spent 18 formative months placed at the Burnet Institute, where she first began to study malaria.

UROP provided a safe space to fail quickly and learn fast. Halina was able to practise lab techniques over and over again.

“UROP gave me a very realistic picture of what research is. It was never carefree and happy; stuff would always go wrong… I’d have to repeat things six times. I left the lids of things open accidentally and everything evaporated,” she says. But that’s the beauty of scientific study, every failure is also a learning opportunity.

UROP also provided other building blocks for Halina: spending time immersed in scientific techniques and language helped her excel in her undergraduate studies, and working alongside more experienced scientists helped develop her professional network.

The biggest influence on her career path was perhaps the exposure to multiple labs with different research focuses within the Burnet Institute. This allowed Halina to explore areas of malaria that were entirely different to her main UROP project, setting her off on a new and unexpected career path. This eventually led Halina to apply for an honours position at WEHI, where she now works.

Halina credits her UROP experience with saving her from the stress and concerns associated with the typically bumpy transition from undergraduate to honours. “You come in from this undergraduate degree and are launched into this massive year of intense research - and you barely know how to do basic laboratory tasks. UROP just bridged that whole gap for me; it just made it less stressful.”

Looking to the future, Halina says her time in academia working in the wet lab has provided the right foundations to move into the next phase of her desired career path: seeing how lab discoveries translate into real-world impact. “I hope to use my grounding in immunology, medical biology and infection to shift my career into an industrial setting, hopefully in the field of clinical trials and translation.”

The next round of UROP applications opens soon. If you’re an exceptional undergraduate science student and want hands-on experience in a lab alongside other talented scientists, then find out more about UROP and apply today.

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