Set for Britain is a series of poster competitions and exhibitions for early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians. Founded in 1997, it takes place every year at the House of Commons.
Alessia Taccogna had the honour of being selected for this year’s contest, which was a great achievement since she was one of just 50 people chosen from 500 entrants in the biology category.
“It’s not an easy competition,” said Alessia. “The hardest part is that your abstract has to be written using a language that anyone can understand.”
Alessia presented work she carried out at UEL to develop an oral vaccination for a parasitic disease called trichinella spiralis, which is usually caught through uncooked meat. She and her fellow researchers are using a probiotic yeast to create the vaccine.
She explained, “The idea is to avoid injection vaccination and work on developing oral because the point is that many pathogens that we encounter get into the body via the mucosa. We breathe them in, we eat them and we drink them.”
“An injection vaccination won’t reach the mucosa because it will only go into our blood.”
Once the vaccine delivery system is optimised, Alessia says the UEL research team believe they can modify it to deliver any sort of suitable vaccine.
Alessia came to UEL in 2009 from Caserta, Italy, to finish a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacology and Molecular Microbiology that she had started at a university in Italy.
In her third year, Alessia did a summer internship with David Guiliano, a senior lecturer at the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience, on the development of oral vaccination. The work led to her current PhD in Development of Novel Oral Vaccine Delivery System.
“If I’d have stayed in Italy, I would have never been in the position I am now,” she said. “At my previous university it was all theory, whereas UEL was the opposite. I went to the lab on my first day and I had never used a real microscope before. It was a little intimidating at first but it was what I needed to learn and improve.”
At Set for Britain, Alessia showed off her project in front of a panel of judges and discussed her research with Members of Parliament and professors from other universities.
“I’ve done loads of poster competitions and science conferences before but this was the first time I did public engagement in front of non-experts,” she said.
“Usually, I speak in front of scientists and I feel comfortable wearing my usual geek T-shirt. Inside Parliament, the competition takes almost another dimension.”
Alessia said she didn’t expect to win the competition – that wasn’t her objective. Rather, it was an opportunity to highlight both her own work and the great research being done at UEL.
“UEL is not that famous compared to other big universities in terms of research. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t do good research,” Alessia said. “We write important publications and participate at international conferences.”
Alessia, who has been passionate about microbiology since she was a child, said being a researcher is difficult and competitive. She added that she was grateful that her PhD has been fully funded by HSB, which has allowed her to focus all her attention on her work.
“Doing a PhD is very demanding,” she said. “I never switch off. It’s not a nine-to-five job. When I go home I write my thesis and even when I have dinner with my friends, I still keep thinking about my project.”
Alessia said it was also necessary to network and make the right contacts to help advance her work, which can be tough.
“But I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “My natural environment is the lab. I love working there and doing research.”