Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Senior Research Scientist, Cell Assay Development, AstraZeneca
I did my Undergrad in Biology with a year in Industry. Initially I didn’t want to do a placement in Industry so did my year at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew working on the genetics of a particular plant genus. Following my final year undergrad, I did not feel that I wanted to do a PhD, so I looked around at what types of careers I could do and got excited about forensic science (FYI I have never watched CSI!). Subsequently, I did an MSc in Forensic Science at The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and decided I really didn’t want to be a forensic scientist! My then girlfriend (now wife) had got onto a Masters course in Sheffield so I followed her and got a job as a lab technician in Cardiovascular Science. This gave me time to think about which PhD (as I had now decided that this was my next step) that I was going to do.
I followed my interest in neuroscience and did a PhD at SITraN working on motor neuron disease. I really enjoyed my PhD, and benefited from some really supportive colleagues, who helped me organise a trip to a lab in the USA for three months during my PhD. I think this kind of thing helped in terms of applications for jobs as it was something extra to talk about on top of my PhD work and showed that I was proactive at seizing opportunities.
However much I enjoyed my PhD, I knew that staying in academia wasn’t for me. I could see colleagues around me, who were really excellent scientists and totally lived for it, but were struggling to get that next bit of funding. In addition these people had to dedicate almost all of their time to work in order to be successful, and I knew that I needed a job where I could marry up my interest in science with a better work-life balance. This isn’t to say that all academics can’t achieve a good balance; I just didn’t think that I would be one of them.
I am now a Senior Research Scientist in the Cell Assay Development team at AstraZeneca. In basic terms, this means that I take disease targets from the Oncology and Neuroscience units and devise and optimise assays for compound screening against those targets within cells. My team consists of 6 people, and is one of several teams making up the Discovery Biology department. Other teams are involved in antibody generation, cell line generation, high content imaging etc. and I am exposed to all of these disciplines on a daily basis. A great thing about this is that it feels like one big team, where I can approach anyone and get help/training in a particular technique that will allow me to achieve my work.
As a result my development as a scientist has really kicked on since joining and I have been involved in a lot of cool science. I feel that there is less friction between people in the company than I experienced in academia, probably due to the fact that we are all working towards similar goals.
Before joining Industry I was concerned that I would simply be a cog in a machine, performing the same task over and over again, and having no control over where my work would go. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth and as I said before one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is the exposure to multiple projects and scientific areas and the necessity to solve problems.
The transfer to pharmaceuticals was a massive learning curve for me, and I still feel like I have a lot to learn. I had no background in drug discovery previously so this part of the job was completely new, but I have learned from my colleagues and everyone has been willing to help me out.
My PhD taught me how to think scientifically and creatively, and how to write reports and papers, which I still have the opportunity to do now. I would say that most people moving into AstraZeneca have a PhD or prior experience in Industry, with very few joining straight from undergraduate or Masters. My typical working week isn’t massively different to what it was like during my PhD; I analyse my results and plan more experiments to deliver working assays. As with the PhD, if I’m not in the lab I am at my desk in the office going through emails, analysing data and writing up experiments. The only difference is that I regularly have to update projects on whether the assay development is going to plan, and I have to write detailed protocols and validation experiments for other people to use as reference. Some people may view working to a set timescale as a con of working in industry, but I find that in general this motivates me to achieve.
In terms of what you will need for a job in drug discovery, in addition to having the technical skills required for the job you are applying for, it is really important to have good communication/presentation skills and to be able to demonstrate that you are a proactive, tenacious individual. Think of some life situations you could use to demonstrate that you have been proactive and problem-solving, if you don’t have any good examples then use your time at Uni wisely and sign up to things that might give you some of these experiences.
There is a really good support structure at Sheffield that can gear you up for interviews and applications and I definitely made the most of it. If you are really serious about a career in drug discovery, one thing I would really recommend is to try and gain some relevant experience during your PhD or to investigate the postdoc opportunities that are available at AZ and other companies. These can give invaluable experience, and combined with a PhD would make you a pretty tempting candidate for any pharma/biotech!