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Samantha Shanks

Biology with Forensic Biology

What appealed to you about Northumbria University / studying in Newcastle?

My entire education has revolved around the centre of town, so I always knew that I wanted to stay local, but in all honesty I’m a ‘toon’ girl and couldn’t see myself anywhere else. As for my choice of university it came down to two main aspects, course and facilities.  Northumbria was the obvious choice. It had the course I was interested in and its laboratory facilities are top class.

What was it about the course / subject area that particularly appealed?

I have always been interested in biology, especially mammalian, but recently I have been fascinated by such television shows such as CSI and Silent Witness, so instead of just watching I wanted to be a part of it. Although I am unsure at the moment as to which career path I want to take I do know that it will be laboratory research based. I find being in the lab so interesting and easier to learn when you put knowledge into practice.  The course has many aspects to it broken down into modules each different and interesting in its own way so perhaps during the course of the years I will find one in particular that I am most interested in and use that as the basis of my career.

What qualifications did you have?

Eight GCSEs A-C grade

Two A-levels (English language/ Psychology) B/C grade

Two HEFCs (Criminology / Human Biology) credit/merit

BSC Hons Criminology and Forensic Science first year pass

How did you feel during your first week at Northumbria?

OLD! Everyone around me was fresh out of school or college and since I had to leave college due to family bereavement and raise my brother it set me back a few years, so it wasn’t until I was 22 that I started my course, and so I’m sat in the induction sessions thinking..."they look so young!" but it only took a matter of minutes until I was chatting away and making friends who are just as mad now as they were when we started. And it turned out that I wasn’t the only older student, which made me feel better.

What do you like most about the course?

I particularly enjoy the lab sessions, there is just something about wearing that long white coat and glasses that make you feel very professional, even if it is just squirting liquid from one tube to the other at times. Dissections and forensic trace labs are the most interesting, at first the thought of staring into a dead snail didn’t appeal very much (I don’t like snails) but squishy horrid sliminess aside it was fascinating to see its inner workings and how adapt it is to its environment. Forensic science is so satisfying when gathering evidence, it is essentially CSI, just without the actors, big plots, and ‘whodunit’, but the basics have to be learnt somehow and it is always interesting to find out the science behind the methods. It is all too easy to say “this sprayed onto that reveals the fingerprint” but it is the process of how that occurs which is the remarkable part.

Can you give an example of a piece of work you’ve been involved with recently?

Recently for environmental plant physiology our class was taken up to Holystone National Park to look at lichens with lecturer Rinke Vinkenoog and lichens expert Janet Simkin, to record lichen species in the area and refer it to the level of SO₂ pollution. This involved group work of viewing, identifying, photographing and recording lichens in the oak woodland site and comparing the results to the known tolerance to gauge the approximate pollution in the area. Identifying them at first was a bit of a challenge, but with the help of lichen specialist Janet we were soon able to distinguish even the smallest of details, well, within reason.

How do you get on with your tutors?

I get on very well with my tutors. My first year was such a struggle as I tried to juggle being a parent to two challenging teen boys and being a university student. There were times when I thought I couldn’t cope and fell behind with the work, but my Programme Leader was such an amazing help, she advised me on the best course of action to take when I fell behind and was always there if I needed advice. She and the rest of the staff were, and still are, very supportive and are more than willing to help anyone who needs it. As for module tutors my hat goes off to Rinke Vinkenoog, there is no one else who can make plants so appealing, he even makes moss seem fun! But all joking aside he has always been very patient and happy to go through things time after time until I understand them. His teaching methods are easy to follow and he always gets people involved.

Do you have the opportunity for any work placements during your course?

After our second year we have the opportunity to take a year placement, I know a few people who have theirs in place, and it’s not just local, someone from our first year landed a placement over in Australia for the duration of her course. I would love the opportunity to travel but I’m settled down now with a partner and my brother has just started college, so I am essentially going to be unadventurous and stay local. I haven’t yet decided if I am doing a placement, I was initially going to ‘power’ through the course but now I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to get some hands-on experience before jumping straight into a job. The University has an amazing Careers Advice Centre so it is always worth a look even if you are not yet sure what you want to do.

What do you do when you’re not studying?

I am being pretty boring this year in contrast to the ‘usual’ student reputation. Myself and my fiancée have got our own place and we are quite enjoying furnishing it and having our own space together, and along with dog and teen I pretty much have the whole family set up. Although that does not stop me hitting the clubs in Newcastle on the odd occasion.  And if that fails I will just go back to what I do best, shop. Which being in the centre of town is a fantastic, yet expensive hobby to have. With shopping centres such as Eldon Square in town and the Metrocentre over Gateshead it is all too easy to part with the newly acquired student loan, goodbye money, hello shoes! But not only does it have some of the best shopping in the UK it also has some of the richest culture, from coffee shops to trinket shops and galleries to arenas, it has something for everyone. I have been here most of my life and still never get bored of being in town five days out of seven.

What’s your accommodation like?

In a word, champion. It’s our own flat with attic conversion so it’s on two floors, we are still in the process of making it from a house into a home but that comes with time, and money, and candles, cushions, rugs, photos.........

I have never been in student accommodation but my friend was, she was in the new build student apartments on the other side of the motorway. It seemed small in comparison but as a student all you need is a room basically and you’re sorted. The apartment was very neat and fully furnished with flat screen TV. She moved in with guys she didn’t know, and now they are all firm friends privately renting with a further few more guys, she is a lucky lady. Although now there is a queue for the toilet and I don’t envy that!

What would you like to do when you graduate?

I am still not sure, there are so many aspects of the course I am interested in, making it hard to pinpoint a specific career path, but ideally I would like to research animal physiology and behaviour, or trace analysis in a lab, two totally different things but with the same amount of interest.

Do you have any advice for anyone applying for your course, or for university in general?

Don’t leave it until the last minute, courses like Forensic Science have seen a greater increase in demand, apply for it as soon as you can, work hard and make yourself stand out by your personal reference.  Universities want you to want to go there so let them know this and let them know it will be their loss if they don’t choose you (but not in those words, be a bit more creative).  Also complete your student finance early, you will have to send forms back and forth, proof is needed, you have to get others to sign stuff...it can get quite lengthy, annoying, and make you want to scream, do try and sort it before the August, because the last thing you want to happen is to start the year skint......and freshers week is no fun when you have no money, it also makes daily living a bit hellish. It isn’t difficult to do, just time consuming.

If you do need accommodation and you are travelling from outside the area then student accommodation would be your best bet, that way you will be able to be close to the University and any help should you need it, but as with most things it is limited.

Don’t worry. It’s been said that university is the best time in your life, a chance for independence, fresh starts, new friends and the start to the career of your choice. It is true most things will change; you yourself will change in some ways but try and not let yourself get overwhelmed. If you find yourself struggling with studies or finance there is always someone available to help you, all you need to do is ask.  I know this from first hand experience. There is nothing worse than being somewhere unfamiliar and feeling lost and in your first year there are a lot of people in the same boat as yourself. Also help others where you can, it’s surprising the friends you can make by, for example, showing them where to get a lab coat.  So enjoy yourself and get involved.

What three words would you use to describe your time at Northumbria?

Wouldn’t change it!


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