Meet the Scientist: Sarah Miller

Hello everyone, its time for another Meet the Scientist feature. For this post I want to introduce to the wonderful Sarah, the face of @t.cell.sarah

Sarah is a research assistant working in the field of T-cells and oncology. Her Instagram is full of photos from the cell biology lab, with plenty of media bottles featured! As a research assistant she has loads of different roles in the lab and has a real love for all things science, and is also proving that you don’t need to be Dr to be a great scientist (something that people too often forget!) Although initially starting out on route for a PhD she realised that it wasn’t the right career path for her, and so changed to a Masters by Research before continuing her career in research.

E: Firstly, you are now a research assistant- what does this job entail? And, what are the best bits of your role?

S: So, as a research assistant I still have my own project that I helped set and work on in the lab, however I also do some laboratory admin stuff. Things like making sure the lab is compliant with the animal ethics, GMO dealings and PC2 requirements (Physical containment, level 2 labs). I also do the inductions for our labs tissue culture facility and help maintain that facility. So it’s a little different to be a straight researcher but I really enjoy some of the admin things and one day hope to get into lab management.

E:  You work in the area of oncology, and your work involves a lot of cell cultures. Can you talk a bit about the sort of work you do, and a what a day would normally look like in the lab?

S: Well when I first get to work I normally have breakfast (I like to sleep, so I always bring breakfast with me) and while eating breakfast I check my emails and try to plan my day. I’m not one of those people that can plan the day before because things happen and come up that need to be dealt with immediately. After emails If I have to go check my cells and give them media I will do that and then its lunch. After lunch I will check my animals if its an animal check day and then in the afternoon will normally be me trying to catch up with my lab book or meetings and then home time.

A snapshot of some tissue culture work

E: Working with cells is pretty different from other lab bench work, do you have any tips for scientists new to cell work to work the most efficiently and sterile-ly?

S: Normally to work with cells you work in a biosafety cabinet sometimes referred to as a tissue culture hood. This hood keeps things sterile and stops outside things from getting into your cells but also stops your cells from being put into the outside world. When working inside the hood I like to think of the hood as clean and anything you put inside the hood as dirty and basically you want to keep the area around your cells as clean as possible and not put them too close to anything.

E: You have mentioned in a few recent posts that you work on animals as well- how different is this from working on cells? 

I only worked with cells in the very beginning and discovered that while cells are interesting I am more fascinated by how things effect how body systems. So I moved to animal work and while at first I thought I couldn’t work with animals I discovered that I actually really enjoy it. I’m not going to lie animal work is hard and very time consuming, animals need to be checked especially after treatments and can’t be left alone for a week to grow in an incubator. However I find the results to be really rewarding and you can definitely find out a lot from animals and the research we do with them. Even though I do enjoy working with animals I hope one day they wont be needed in research and we have better techniques to do what we are currently using animals for.

E: Let’s talk a bit about careers. You started out on the path for a PhD, but swapped over to a Masters by Research before carrying on in the research lab.  Can you give some insight into the process for you of converting over your degree, and any advice for others currently undertaking a PhD who think maybe it’s not right for them?

S: I decided at the almost 2 year mark that doing a PhD wasn’t for me, it was taking quite a toll on my mental health and I was very unhappy. I felt like quitting and really could not stand the thought of continuing on with a PhD. I spoke to many people and had a breakdown over this decision, I really didn’t know what to do. Finally, I found out I could turn what I had already done into a Masters. At first, I was very apprehensive about it (I was still very fragile mentally) so I took some time off and really put some distance between myself and work. After my time away I decided that I would convert to a Masters. It was such a relief, like a weight had lifted from my shoulders, and I was happy again (don’t be fooled I was still super stressed).

Don’t let other people tell you, you are stepping down and what a waste…. Having a masters is not a step down, having any post graduate degree is amazing and don’t let other people bring you down

I decided to convert to a Masters for a few reasons as mentioned I was unhappy but also I never saw myself as a post doc or eventually running my own lab. If you are unhappy in you PhD like really unhappy and don’t want to continue, depending on how far into it you are I would definitely look into switching it to a masters and don’t let other people tell you, you are stepping down and what a waste (yes I heard all those things).

Having a Masters is not a step down, having any post graduate degree is amazing and don’t let other people bring you down. As far as the process of converting its actually quite easy just some paper work and a few signatures, however you cannot convert to a masters if you are past the 2 year mark in your PhD.

E:  After all of the career and science-based talk- let’s talk free time! When you aren’t in the lab what do you enjoy getting up to?

I love reading, hanging out with my friends and partner. I also love going to the movies (cinemas), who doesn’t love movie popcorn (soooo good) and when I’m home I love chilling my puppy (who I miss dearly). Currently I am saving for a trip to Japan because I am a huge Harry Potter fan and really want to make it to Harry Potter world at universal on my 30th birthday, so fingers crossed I can save enough 😊

E: And finally, what is your favourite thing about working in science, and one thing you wish you could ‘debunk’ about your work?

Its not like CSI guys (don’t worry I grew up on that show too and love it), things don’t happen that fast, we can’t just get DNA from anything in 10 minutes (I wish!), things in the lab take time. Even the simplest things take longer than 10 mins. For me running an experiment takes up most of my day and then analysis the next day. As much as I wish it was like CSI and the movies it’s just not – but I still get to do some supper cool things.

Thank you so much to Sarah! Make sure to go give her a follow @t.cell.sarah to find out more about life as a cancer researcher 🙂

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