|Research Associate in Structural Biology and Biophysics|
|University of York|
|Science and research|
|Large business (250+ employees)|
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A day in the life of a Research Associate in Structural Biology and Biophysics in the United Kingdom
I didn't expect to find myself back at York, but I was looking to apply my skills to medicine discovery, and somehow I've managed to achieve that aim.
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
I work in a research lab within the Department of Biology at the University of York.
What do you do?
I conduct research to reveal the molecular mechanisms underlying a blood cancer that is driven by a single genetic lesion. I use my practical skills in molecular biology, protein chemistry, and biophysics to design experiments and interpret my results. I work in collaboration with cell biologists to understand what those results mean in the context of disease and how to translate them into patient therapies. I present my results at internal meetings and to external collaborators, and contribute to publications in the scientific literature. I use my past experience in drug discovery to guide the direction of my research, and I share this experience with undergraduate students through a stage 2 tutorial series.
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
Immediately after graduating from York, I took up a research assistant post at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (advertised in New Scientist) because I wanted a break from study, and to get more experience in biochemistry and structural biology. After two years of hard graft in the lab, I realised that I would need to study for a doctorate in order to gain independence and for this I went to Oxford. My DPhil (also advertised in New Scientist) was sponsored by AstraZeneca, so I gained experience and made contacts in their labs, which were invaluable in enabling a move into industry at the end of my PhD. I enjoyed 12 years as a structural biologist in drug discovery research, and then, when AstraZeneca announced their move to Cambridge in 2013, I took redundancy and moved to an academic research post in Newcastle (with my PhD supervisors from Oxford), continuing the drug discovery theme. However, this post involved a lengthy commute from our home in York, so when a post that fitted my skills and experience became available in York, it was an easy decision to apply, and so here I am back at my alma mater.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
I didn't expect to find myself back at York, but I was looking to apply my skills to medicine discovery, and somehow I've managed to achieve that aim!
Describe your most memorable day at work
My most exciting days at work are when one of experiments works out and I get an exciting result, or a result that helps me understand why things were not working and how to fix them. Some of my experiments can take many months to yield a final result, so I have learnt to get excited by all the little steps along the way. I also get excited when things go well for my colleagues - a good result, a job offer, a paper accepted for publication. That way there is always something to keep me motivated.
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
Experimental science is of its nature unpredictable, so although you can plan your day, it doesn't always work out the way that you thought, and you have to be able to think on your feet, and be prepared for your hours to be flexible. Research jobs are often short term contracts, which can be stressful, especially when experiments don't work out right as well, so it's important to have a strong support network, both at home and at work.
What’s your work environment and culture like?
Most days are a mixture of experimental work at the bench, where I wear lab coat and when required safety glasses and gloves; data analysis and planning at my desk; and research seminars. Some days my working hours are longer than others depending on the type of experiment that I'm doing, but usually I can balance work and home life, although this has taken many years of practise! Some aspects of my work can be done from home; reading, writing up experiments and writing papers, data analysis. I sometimes travel to conferences, or to visit collaborators, but more often these days we use video links or we ship our samples and control experiments remotely rather than travelling. The University of York is a great place to do research as the environment and culture encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary / multidisciplinary exchange.
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
Leading walks for the University of York Outdoor Society - the ability to plan and lead groups of people through unfamiliar terrain, dealing with the unexpected.
What would you like to do next with your career?
Continue to expand my skill set to encompass the most up-to-date techniques in my field and use these to resolve unanswered scientific questions and apply my findings to patient benefit. Share my knowledge and experience with others through formal and informatl teaching opportunities.
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
Network, network, network! When interviewing, I look for enthusiasm, curiosity and persistence, so make sure you can demonstrate those qualities if you want a career in research.
What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?
Life as a research scientist in academia and industry. Interviewing and being interviewed.
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