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Sarah Buchan

BSc Biology 1998; PhD 2005

Sarah Buchan

What made you select the University of Southampton?

When I visited the department (Biological Sciences) at what was then Boldrewood, there was a great atmosphere. All the staff and students were friendly and enthusiastic and the course itself was very flexible; it had the option to choose units to suit your own interests which appealed to me as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the time.

Did you have any anxieties about going to University?

It was such a long time ago I can’t remember. I don’t think so though; I was excited and quite proud to be going. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend university and I felt very privileged to be able to spend three years studying a subject I enjoyed.

What was Southampton like as a place to study?

I was lucky enough to live in Halls for the entire three years and was right on campus (in what is now the Childcare building) so I was next door to the Hartley Library and opposite the bar; evenings would often be spent studying with a quick dash over the road at 10.45 for last orders; I think it was a pretty balanced three years.

What did you enjoy about the course?

The flexibility to choose units of interest was perfect. Initially I didn’t really know what I wanted to do once I finished my degree but as time went on I found I enjoyed cellular biology and immunology while friends were more interested in ecology and evolution. The fact that the course could cater for all of these divergent and developing interests was great. The practical side of the course was also great fun; I recall being one of around fifty undergraduates slopping urine up the stairwells while measuring urinary output, although sadly I can’t recall the purpose of the experiment, of evenings beetle-racing in southern Spain on field trip, of hesitantly dissecting tapeworms under water to prevent the spread of eggs, and spending a happy hour watching kittens at play in behavioural science.

How did you studies and experience at Southampton shape your future?

By the time I reached the third year I realised that my interests lay in immunology but none of the available projects were in this area. With Dr Arthur Wild’s help I organised an immunology-focussed final project supervised by Dr Bridget Wilkins. This was instrumental in that it led to my first published paper and also indirectly to my PhD; Bridget emailed a few months after I completed my degree to tell me there was a position in Southampton which I might be interested in. This led to me starting work in Prof F K Stevenson’s lab as a Research Assistant which then led onto a PhD and I have remained in Southampton ever since.

When you graduated what was your ambition and do you feel you’ve achieved it?

I wanted to continue studying how the immune system worked. I thought then, and still think now, that mounting an immune response is one of the most incredible things the human body manages to do. Somehow this collection of cells enables us to eradicate harmful infections and cancers, yet is tolerant of food or a baby in utero. The fact that an unchecked immune response can lead to fatal allergy or autoimmunity is testament to the power of these cells yet we still have scant understanding of how it all works as one cohesive system. Having spent over 15 years studying how we might manipulate the immune response to target cancer I’m more aware than ever of just how limited my understanding is.

How has the University / your sector changed in the years since you studied?

The University campus itself has changed enormously, in most part for the better. A lot of building work has gone on to modernise the main campus and provide better facilities; gone are the days of lecturers bringing overhead projector acetates to the lecture theatre, or of queuing late into the night to use a computer for instance. That said, I am more than a little sad that the ‘corridor-to-nowhere’ has disappeared from the student union. Another change is the increasingly international flavour to the student body and staff with colleagues originating from every corner of the globe. Aside from the benefits of having cakes to celebrate not just birthdays but also Eid, Diwali, Chinese New Year etc, this diversity is without doubt of benefit to the university community and to wider scientific research and I sincerely hope the campus will retain this diversity after Brexit.

What advice would you give to a student starting their degree at Southampton?

Go and enjoy every minute of your time here; it goes by very quickly.

If you had your time at University again is there anything you’d do differently?

I wouldn’t get flagella and cilia muddled up in my final viva.

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