A look into our volunteer’s world

“You’re a really interesting person.” I remarked, recapping my pen with a click. Enora blushes, “Not really.” She replies. 17 Year Old Enora is the daughter of a Naval Officer. She was born in France, where she resided for the first 10 years of her life. She has since then lived in Italy and Malaysia and eventually moved to England. “I used to hate having to move, leaving friends behind. But now I understand how lucky I am.” She explains.

I ask her what she wants to do when she’s older, and she smiles “I’m applying to study political sciences at university, I want to work for an NGO, have a stable job and a family.” Where does a girl so young find the inspiration for such compassionate ambitions? Enora originally intended to forge a career in the hospitality industry, and so undertook a work experience placement at a hotel. They had an animal centre, with an enclosure for orang-utans, and one day, the hotel was visited by some children from a special needs school. Enora was also involved in the visit, this was when she decided she wanted to dedicate her career to helping the vulnerable.

She was further inspired when she took part in the model united nations. She was a member of the Arab Springs committee, and had the chance to discuss and contribute towards decisions concerning real life problems. “I realised that I really wanted to make a difference to peoples’ lives, to help those in need.”

We see such a negative portrayal of teenagers in the media, and so many are more than eager to live up to the stereotype. However; Enora is a prime example of a new generation, of more sensible, compassionate and ambitious teenager, even managing to swim competitively since the age of 10 despite all the moving around.

I ask her What’s the greatest adventure you want to go on? The answer is not something you could guess at. She thinks for some time, turning things over in her mind. “I would love to travel to Nepal, and live for a while with the people of the Himalayan mountains, it’s important to learn about other peoples’ point of view.”

So for all those Nay sayers, who keep bemoaning a selfish generation who are going to destroy the earth, the future is not so bleak. The media is crowded with the negative. Maybe it’s time to focus on the positive, to inspire younger generations? There will always be bad apples, but its teens like Enora who are going to make a real difference to the world. With their altruistic thoughts and philanthropic actions.

Niro Ragunathan
RAFT Research Assistant

Keep them ‘happy and busy’

Instead of the usual half-dozen high school and university students spending two to four weeks at RAFT during the summer, a different tact has been taken this year: two student volunteers working for the entire year.

The advantages jump right out at you. Before, most of the students’ time was spend on learning laboratory basics and just as they were ready to begin taking on productive work, they were gone. In addition, because of their number it was very time consuming to whoever was appointed as their instructor and mentor.

RAFT’s Dr Elena Garcia, who is in charge of the two students, says though that with the additional benefits to RAFT also comes more responsibility.

“Biomedical students, Biranavan Arasakulanathan and Setuchi Wilkinson, are doing as much work as anyone else,” she says. “They’ve come here as unpaid help so it is extremely important that we make good use of their time – for their benefit and well as our own.”

The two students are working on purposed future projects for RAFT; Biranavan in bone regeneration, and Setuchi in tissue engineering. Their research could lead to new directions for RAFT.

“It takes time mentoring these students – I’ll be honest with you,” says Elena. “I have to spend time each day thinking what we’re going to do. It’s rewarding though when they come to you with a newly solved piece of the puzzle.”

Biranavan has been fortunate enough to be able to take a year-out to work full time with RAFT, while Setuchi is working part-time at RAFT.

“The secret is for something like this to work is that each needs their own specific project and you have to keep them busy and happy,” says Elena. “And if they’re busy and happy, then I’m happy.”

Setuchi’s experience at RAFT

am currently studying for a Biomedical Science degree and am volunteering at Raft.  So far I have found the experience incredibly valuable and have learnt new techniques such as histology and cell culture.

I am very grateful to the people who have taught me for having so much patience and being so encouraging, making me feel comfortable enough to ask as many questions as I needed to.  I have also learnt background and scientific information behind the Smart Matrix and the team have been very willing to help me learn. 

When I first started I was made to feel extremely welcome and part of the team, and quickly saw that everybody from the fundraising team to the researchers contribute to the success of RAFT.  Volunteering at RAFT has given me the experience of working in a lab outside of a University, where people are working towards a very worthwhile cause and I am thoroughly enjoying working with such a hard working and passionate group of people. I find being in an organization where work is being done to develop new and better treatments which will benefit so many people very exciting and rewarding.   The improvement of my lab knowledge and skills will also benefit me in my final year of University and provide me with experience for future jobs in science research. 

How is the filming coming along?

All filming which had to take place at RAFT is finished and now comes the hard work of editing. For work that the students are doing, the ratio is quite high between shot raw material and finished, with about 15 minutes of raw material required for one minute of edited finished film.


Because the students doing the work are not MA students, their access to university computers is limited severely over the summer months. For right now, call it a work in progress.

Working with students: a win-win for all

I was looking at the clock. I was thinking.

What were the chances that somebody broke into RAFT, didn’t steal anything, but in the end decided to change all the clocks so they were 90 minutes fast? Yeah…that’s what I figured too, about a zero chance of that.

Could I be in a parallel universe where time did strange things? Doubtful. Or maybe, just maybe, could the four students I had coming in to RAFT just be very, very late? As much as I hated to admit it, that did seem the most logical explanation.

I’ve been working with university photography, film making and journalism students now for over 16-years. While time keeping has never been a positive feature with most of them, their enthusiasm, desire to do an outstanding job and lack of cynicism has more than made up for it.

It was in Hong Kong that I first started to use students. At the newspaper where I worked I was doing a feature story on Down’s syndrome adults and children. The editor wasn’t happy with my idea, preferring to put on the Sunday magazine cover instead the latest Cantonese female pop star.

To do the story right I needed a photographer who was willing to spend time with the subjects to understand them; to produce honest work. After the editor said I could have a staff shooter for around 20 minutes; I contacted Chinese University’s journalism department instead.

While a staff photographer would have taken up none of my time – I wouldn’t even had to have been there for the shoot - by spending time and working with a student in the end I got exactly the shot I wanted.

Now, a continent away from China, I’m still working with students. At RAFT we have four students from the University of West London who are filming basic laboratory procedures for The Knowledge Channel and who eventually be doing some work for the yet to be launched Young RAFT.

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit frustrating at times. While with a professional film crew we would have had the finished product in about a week or so – paying professional prices – with the students it’s going to take longer. Their university has cut semester hours, which means they have less time to utilise equipment and have more competition from other students who also need the kit and computers.

Still, in the end we will have a product we can be proud of, plus we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we provided these hard working students with a wonderful subject material for their portfolios.

The good:

·         Students can bring in a fresh set of eyes to any situation

·         ‘We’ve never done it that way before’ is a phrase they don’t know

·         Equipment is usually state-of-the-art

·         Being students, they have instructors who can guide and assist them

·         The price is right - free

 The bad:

·         Students have a sense of time not based on anything in this solar system

·         A simple obstacle can stop them in their tracks

·         Students don’t always have access to equipment, especially during summer months

·         Being students, they have classes, exams, etc. It’s next to impossible to get anything done quickly

·         Sometimes you’re much better off paying for a professional

To make it work:

·         Have a crystal clear idea what you want the students to do

·         Be specific with them; and then be even more specific

·         Have somebody assigned to assist the students at your work

·         Stay in contact with their instructors

Nick talks about his life at RAFT

RAFTer Nick explains what he does and why

Why I went into science?

As a teenager in secondary school my favourite subject was always science, however I was always in awe of the subject as it was so varied and held so many unanswered questions. I nevertheless followed my GCSEs with science A levels and loved biology and the intricate workings of the cell. Such a small but complicated bundle of complex molecules interacting with one another to form a near perfect living structure fascinated me and so I went onto to study Physiology and Pharmacology at university. This degree involved studying the workings of the body and how both medical and abused drugs interact with the body’s cells in a positive (beneficial effects to reduce symptoms of disease) and negative (side-effects) way. I soon found that I loved working in a research laboratory and carrying out experiments with tissue and cells, whereby we discovered the behaviour of heart cells and also what particular conditions trigger heart attacks. I was encouraged to go on to do a PhD and here investigated the characteristics of cancer cells and why they can evade the immune system’s ability to target them and stop it from eradicating cancer cells before they form malignant tumours. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of a PhD, the hard work, logical thinking and knowledge that eventually research scientist’s findings will make a difference to the treatment of life-threatening diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.

What I do at RAFT?

At RAFT I work as a postdoctoral (post-PhD) researcher in the field of skin cancer research and prevention. I work alongside my boss, Dr Rachel Haywood, into discovering why normal skin cells, melanocytes, when subjected to harmful sun rays known as UVA and UVB, can lead to these cells being damaged in different compartments of the cell. Our aims are to determine how this damage can lead normal cells to transform into malignant melanoma cells, which can ultimately lead to patients dying if not detected early enough. In addition, I also present my work to members of the public and potential donors at RAFT both experimentally and also in visual presentations. I also present my work to national and international conferences to other research scientists such as myself in order to share the findings of all research groups in order to facilitate the translation of our work into real treatments in the near future.

What I think of working at raft?

Since the first day of working at RAFT I noticed how great a working environment this small but expanding research charity is. My work is always in the public domain, is exciting and novel, I have a great boss who is very knowledgeable on her subject and allows me some experimental freedom which can always lead to exciting new results. Also RAFT is relatively unique in that research scientists, administration staff and fundraising staff all work in the same building, harmoniously, effectively and to the benefit of all. The morale of everybody here is high as we all share the same work ethos, are hard-working and work well together. But most importantly we are very friendly group of people and this makes coming into work a real pleasure