For Volunteers Week, we’re sharing the story of Baiba – one of our amazing volunteers, who’s responsible for analysing our lifesaving spit kits as they come in from donors across the UK.
What is your role in the Anthony Nolan Labs?
In the beginning when I applied I didn’t know what placement I would be allocated. I’m in the first laboratory where all the processing of blood and saliva samples happens, so I’m responsible for opening up all the spit kits that have been sent in, and afterwards I scan them all into the system and categorise them according to their importance. I also help out with anything else that needs doing, and learn how different processes work.
I’m studying biomedical sciences, in my second year. I’d like to work in a lab in the future and this is very helpful for that. You see how everything works, how roles are divided, get a feel for what the environment is like.
How did you get involved in this placement?
Our tutor Stefano Casalotti’s daughter was diagnosed with a blood condition and needed a transplant, and she found a match through Anthony Nolan. Afterwards he advertised to students that there was a chance to volunteer. So I thought I would have a closer look, I went on the Anthony Nolan website and had a look. I read that you find a match for three people every day and I found it fascinating. Even though I didn’t know exactly where I would be placed, and maybe wouldn’t even get to be in a laboratory setting, I could help somewhere else and help other people. I was amazed by the job that you do so I thought OK, I’ll sign up and hopefully get a place, and here I am.
It was a long journey, there were various different assessments for laboratory and computer based theory.
Are you finding it challenging, interesting?
I don’t find it too challenging but it is interesting. I was speaking to one of my tutors and he was saying that he’d never seen DNA extraction devices like Anthony Nolan has close-up before, so he said he would have to ask if he could pop in one day and have a look! It’s exciting. And it gives your studying a boost because you know more than other students about the actual processes that are happening, what you do with the samples.
Are you finding it easy to balance with your studies?
Oh yeah, it’s just 4 hours a week. I’m good with time management so I knew I’d be fine with it. And it’s every week on the same day, so you can plan ahead for it. If it was a different day every week it would be much more difficult to organise.
Are you finding it well supported?
I really like my team, I’m really enjoing it. It feels like a job where you don’t get paid – I always try my best. I feel that the more I do the smoother everything will go, and maybe we can find one more match a day – who knows?
Do you feel like volunteering brings you personal benefits?
Definitely, we had an exam on clinical studies and there were basic things about how processing works and I didn’t even have to go through the slides or anything, I’ve done it so many times already that it’s in my head. I could literally think about what I did last Thursday and write up an essay on it. It’s really beneficial.
I’m more confident already; when I finish my studies I plan to go on a placement and I am already more confident in a lab setting. It boosts your confidence for future interviews.
Do you feel that you’re personally making a difference?
I actually do. Sometimes I get good feedback when I’ve finished a four-hour shift and the other people in my team have said, you’ve done so well, we wouldn’t have been able to get through all this without you. It’s great, you leave the building with a smile on your face knowing that you’ve done something well and that you’ve done something for others.
Would you recommend the placement to other students?
Yes, definitely. Already Professor Casalotti has said that if I’m willing, he would like me to speak to next year’s placement and talk about how it works so they will be prepared for it.
Were you aware of Anthony Nolan before this?
Yes, I was aware. Unfortunately I can’t donate myself but a few of my housemates have joined the register.
Plus, I’ve seen the adverts online and on bus stops. The route where I run in has two bus stops with adverts on for Anthony Nolan. When I run past I feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m one of them!’, it gives you a boost and you can run a bit faster.
Have you learned about the other areas of research that we do?
The other people from my university told me about their placements and I think it would be nice to try them too as we are probably going to get rotated. It’s amazing that Anthony Nolan is doing all the extra research into cancer as well. It’s not just finding a match, it’s all the other stuff that’s going on, and the fact that it’s international. It’s amazing and inspiring. From when it started in the 70s and they couldn’t find a match for Anthony, to now when you have a massive laboratory and you find a match for so many people. There are so many people on the donor register now and it didn’t even exist before.
And there are other areas that are exciting too – not just the science but the outreach. At university we have a group that often holds events to try and get students to sign up to the register, which is great. I’m always persuading my friends to sign up too. Everyone asks, will it hurt? And because I know more about it I can say it’s not something you should be worried about. The squeamish ones say ‘I can’t even donate blood’, so I tell them they only need spit to sign up and the actual donation truly is not invasive.
Have you thought about whether you want to work in cancer research in the future?
Actually I have thought about it, I’ve become genuinely interested in immunology which goes hand in hand with cancer. And from a genetic perspective, looking at the extent to which genetic mutations lead to certain conditions. That all needs some research as well that I can contribute to.
Do you think this placement has been helpful in helping you think about what you want to do?
It’s possible that there are so many varieties of research that this experience with Anthony Nolan can contribute to, so it really helps.
We didn’t know if there are any other charities that offer things like this, have you come across any?
Not charities I think, some private ones. You don’t find many charities that are big enough. It’s hard for charities to establish their own labs but this is an example that it’s possible. I’ve never come across anything like this, it’s unique and it’s amazing to be part of it.
What was the application process like for this placement?
Many students from second and third year applied for this and only 5 of us got through, there was a lot of competition.
We had to go through a lab assessment that was quite hard; I think the aim was to see how we reacted in a lab scenario we’d never come across before. Then they selected about half of us for a second laboratory assessment, and the next phase was computer based, we just answered questions more related to cancer labs, what to do pre and post PCRs, the importance of not contaminating samples. And then we got together with the university volunteering manager who was assessing our aims. It was quite intense, especially when you know you’ve got a whole year ahead. But it was definitely worth it.
I’m really happy my placement is in the lab; I’ve loved it ever since I was in college. I love learning new things and being able to say I’ve been there and done that really boosts your confidence.
Feeling inspired to be one of our volunteers? Find out more here.