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Tiffany Chan and Claudia Fraser were two of our fantastic tutors who helped ensure the UNIQ Oncology Summer School happened in the midst of a pandemic.

The coronavirus lockdown has affected us all. The way we work, particularly as scientists, has been turned upside down, with chemical synthesis replaced with baking and tissue culture with alcohol hand-gels. But the worst hit people have been the young adults who are at this moment are making decisions on how to begin their adult lives. While some students may feel secure in the choice to continue to higher education, many are unsure about whether they are the right fit for such a commitment and environment.

Enter the Oxford UNIQ program, in which students and volunteers from across the university organise a range of experiences for young adults who want to gain a better understanding of what life at the University of Oxford is all about, and to help them decide whether higher education is right for them.

In a normal year, an Oxford UNIQ course would typically involve a five-day residential stay in an Oxford college, attending academic tutorials, lectures, and social activities as an Oxford undergraduate would.

While the Department of Oncology does not offer an undergraduate degree course itself, we believe it is important to show the younger generation the varied routes into a medical research career, what a degree in science can lead to - as well as showcase some of the cutting-edge research that takes place within our walls.

This year, we had to take a slightly different approach to running UNIQ as we could no longer give opportunities for hands-on lab work -but we were not going to let a global pandemic get in the way of inspiring the next generation of medical researchers! Ten scientists, ranging from PhD students to academic staff, eager to share their research through the magic of our new best friend, Microsoft Teams, created engaging presentations on their areas of cancer research.

The lectures covered a wide variety of topics, from discussing genes, proteins and mutations, to the tumour microenvironment and radiotherapy. Sessions also covered clinical trials and drug discovery, giving students an insight into what occurs behind the scenes of every new treatment or technique.

In the Cornelissen Group, much of our work looks at improving nuclear imaging and radionuclide therapy, both of which are essential for cancer treatment today. To reflect this, we decided to create a session on radiochemistry and imaging, covering the different types of medical imaging, how we can use radioactive compounds to help us to diagnose and/or treat cancer, and a brief summary of the research that we are personally involved in.

Both of us are chemists by training so we were particularly keen to highlight the importance of chemistry in medical research – something that wasn’t obvious to us when we were studying science at school! After getting our heads around how to record a joint video (not as easy as it sounds!), we managed to film our talk and upload it. On the day, the students on the Oncology stream listened to our lecture and then had the chance to pose any questions they had to us live. To help with this (and to break the ice a little), we prepared a short quiz, polling the students on the types of medical imaging that they had experienced before (“Have you ever had an ultrasound scan before?” “Yes, when I was in the womb!”) and what they had learnt from our session. Overall, the students seemed really engaged in the session and keen to learn more – hopefully we’ll be welcoming some of them to the Department in a few years’ time!