Summer students experience “a different world” at the GMRI


From the left, Elysia Tan, Sam Siljee, Therese Featherston, Nicholas On, Sabrina Koh, Helen Yu

An exceptional group of university students has participated in the 2015/16 Gillies McIndoe Research Institute’s summer student programme, sponsored by the Deane Endowment Trust.

Sam Siljee (23), Elysia Tan (21), Helen Yu (21), Nicholas On (20), Sabrina Koh (19) and Therese Featherston (18) are studying either medicine or science at university. Over summer they spent 12 weeks conducting research at the GMRI’s facility in Newtown, Wellington.

The students undertook laboratory research into strawberry birthmarks, venous malformation (a type of vascular birthmark), Dupuytren’s contracture (a condition that causes contracture of the fingers) and cancer.

Under the guiding eyes of the GMRI’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Tinte Itinteang, and the team led by Dr Swee Tan, the Founder and Executive Director of the GMRI, the students, from Auckland University and the medical schools of Otago University in Dunedin and Wellington, enjoyed a unique laboratory experience as they immersed themselves in their own research, following briefs provided by the GMRI team.

The students agreed the balance of guidance and independence they received was invaluable.

“We were really thrown in the deep end and I spent a lot of time just working out what the brief even meant – but in no way was I left to struggle, either,” Therese says.

“That was a great way to learn,” Nick says.  “We’re making our own discoveries, figuring things out and drawing conclusions for ourselves.

“The constant trial and error taught me patience and persistence.”

The students say an exciting aspect of the research was that the team at the GMRI didn’t have the answers themselves.

“We were working on things that have never been done before – it’s ground-breaking work, and what we find will be submitted for publication.

“It’s a massive deal, as a student, to be the first author of a publication,” Sabrina says.

The students said they felt a huge amount of faith and trust was placed in them, which was flattering and empowering.

“All our opinions are valid – they want to know what we’ve found, what we’re thinking, where we can take the research,” Sam says.

“A medical degree doesn’t give you research opportunities – so this student programme was hugely eye-opening.

“It’s a completely different world, and I’m so lucky to have experienced it.”