I’m Rea and I’m in my fourth and final year of Molecular Bioengineering.
I grew up in Albania and attended the public education system there until I was 17 years old. In my penultimate year of high school, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at St. Clare's in Oxford – an opportunity that not only facilitated my transition to the UK as an international student but also provided me with the foundations to handle the academic rigour of my undergraduate studies here.
I have always been intrigued by how knowledge and tools from maths, physics, chemistry, and computer science can be leveraged to solve biological problems – both in terms of understanding fundamental science and coming up with innovative solutions to healthcare and environmental issues. During my university application process, I came across the Molecular Bioengineering course at Imperial and it almost sounded as if someone had read my mind and designed the dream course for me at the intersection of science, engineering and medicine.
Research at Imperial
Inspired by her TED talk, one of the very first emails I sent with my Imperial email address was to Professor Molly Stevens the summer before I started my first year, asking if I could join her lab as an undergraduate researcher. Being part of the Stevens Group has been a centerpiece of my experience at Imperial, as I have grown personally and professionally in one of the most prominent, diverse and supportive bioengineering research groups in the world.
I have been fortunate to be mentored by incredible postdoctoral researchers including Dr David Peeler (immunoengineering expert and my fantastic mentor for the past two years), as well as Dr Vernon LaLone and Dr Jelle Penders. My final year project primarily focused on developing characterisation methods for nanomaterials as nucleic acid delivery platforms used in the context of targeted vaccines to fight and prevent disorders ranging from cancer to infectious diseases. Not only have I been engaged in exciting, cutting-edge bioengineering research, but also in some of the most enjoyable lab social events ranging from sports games and a scavenger hunt in Hyde Park to gala nights.
The past few years have been a pure joy, and I am absolutely thrilled to continue this journey as a PhD student from next year.
Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Harvard
Professor Stevens and my mentors at the Stevens Group have been instrumental in supporting my enterprises even beyond Imperial, including a research experience in the Mooney Lab at Harvard during the summer of 2022, where I worked on immunoengineering research projects ranging from designing biodegradable bispecific T cell engagers (BiTEs) to characterising biomaterial-induced tertiary lymphoid structure formation and lymphocyte recruitment.
Apart from having a great time with fellow Harvard REU students, I was able to immerse myself in the vibrant research community in Boston and build a skillset that has been particularly useful during my final year project.
I’m forever grateful to Professor David Mooney who went to great lengths to make this experience possible despite the COVID restrictions, to Dr Joshua Brockman and Nikko Jeffreys who were incredible mentors, and to everyone else at the Mooney Lab who took me as one of their own and continue to offer all-round support from the other side of the pond even to this day.
Teaching on the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme
In the summer of 2021, apart from the lab-based UROP with the Stevens Group, I undertook two teaching UROPs with Dr Reiko Tanaka (Signals and Control 2) and Professor Martyn Boutelle (Medical and Biochemical Science 1), who kindly trusted me to develop teaching materials for their modules. This experience has been immensely valuable as it has allowed me to come full circle—from initially engaging with these modules as a student, to further developing their content, and finally delivering them as a Teaching Assistant. Conducting a lab-based UROP with Professor Stevens and two teaching UROPs with Dr Tanaka and Professor Boutelle that summer and being a TA in their modules for the past two years has been a great taster of how academics balance research and teaching, and all three of them have played a crucial role in inspiring me to explore a career in academia.
While Imperial has a reputation for being a world-class STEM institution, there are plenty of opportunities to explore disciplines beyond your degree through Horizons classes. During my first year, I took Making and Prototyping, which was still a technical course, but helped me gain some useful practical skills such as Arduino, 3D printing, and laser cutting through fun hands-on activities. In second year, I did German level 3, and in third year I did Science, Policy and Power, where I was able to explore the intersection between science and policy-making and reflect on the wider societal impact of our scientific advancements.
When I had just started first year, I decided to run as an academic representative for my Molecular Bioengineering cohort, not quite knowing what I was signing up for at the time. Since then, I have the privilege of representing bioengineering students for four years in a row, as well as 9,000+ students as a Faculty of Engineering union council representative for the past two years.
The Department of Bioengineering has made incredible efforts in upholding the highest standards of student-staff relations, particularly throughout the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most notably, they decided to appoint a member of the academic staff as a ‘Student Liaison Officer’ to advocate on students’ behalf and collaborate directly with the reps. This role was expertly handled for the first two years by Dr David Labonte, whose contributions laid the foundation for the bioengineering representation network that exists today.
Engaging in representation roles within the department, faculty and the union has brought me closer to my peers and staff members, and our collaborations have proved to be extremely positive and productive.
Whether it be the implementation of new educational policies, curriculum modifications or campaigns ranging from enhancing the accessibility of UROPs to addressing the cost-of-living crisis, it’s truly gratifying to think of the multitude of ways in which Imperial students and staff spearhead not only groundbreaking scientific advancements, but also changes that enrich the student life and experience.
With so many clubs and societies at Imperial, you can be certain that you will find something you like outside of your studies. At some point during second year, I remember counting about eight extracurriculars that I was engaged in simultaneously. While it may be overwhelming to strike the right balance between extracurriculars with academic responsibilities, these pursuits have enriched my experience and given me a sense of purpose and belonging that couldn’t have been replicated by sitting in the library all day. Among all the fun activities with clubs and societies, one of the most memorable experiences for me will be the beach volleyball tour to Portugal this year - a fantastic combination of competition and fun social activities with fellow students from all over the UK.
The Imperial Community
Before coming to Imperial, I found the idea of fitting into a STEM institution truly daunting. I was convinced that I would just be one of 300 students in a lecture hall, and I would never be able to speak to lecturers.
I have been proven wrong many times on that front, but nothing has cemented it more than the Bioengineering student-staff appreciation event that we organised earlier this academic year, where students could submit notes of appreciation for staff members (and vice versa). It was so incredibly heartwarming to read the lovely things that people had to say about each other through hundreds of notes that were submitted and displayed around the room for everyone to read, while our Bioengineering staff band (yes, you read that correctly) livened up the evening with their performance. That was a great testament to the fantastic community and sense of belonging we share in bioengineering, where most academics are not only happy to answer questions during and after lectures in a variety of forums, but they will provide multi-faceted support in a wide range of academic and personal matters.
The importance of a welcoming and supportive environment cannot be overstated particularly in STEM, where innovation is driven by collaboration. It has been truly humbling to share my university experience and learn from my peers who are not only some of the most brilliant minds but genuinely down-to-earth and lovely people. Be it my bioengineering buddies, Beit Hall neighbours or clubs and societies teammates, we have made amazing memories together and they have truly made London feel like a second home.
Life beyond Imperial
Being an Imperial student comes with the perk of living in one of the most amazing parts of London, and with countless opportunities to make friends and engage in enriching experiences. But an Imperial journey is by no means easy and mine would have been impossible without my support system back in Albania. Family, friends, mentors, those who have inspired me to pursue bioengineering and supported me in every step. As my undergraduate journey at Imperial comes to an end, I am excitedly looking forward to paying all this forward by contributing to the advancement of science in Albania and beyond.