I wanted to write a blog post about my career so far. I have been asked a number of times now about how I got into science, and how I knew what I wanted to do- the answer isn’t simple, and my career path was more a meander than a straight forward route. So join me as I go through how I got to where I am today.
Getting to University
My Science career started at school. I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Graphics at A-level, and initially had the idea that I wanted to study Optometry at university.
Results day came, and was not what I had hoped for. My friends were busy celebrating their exam success and getting into university, whilst I was left in tears after failing to get into my university choices. Now, my A-level results were not bad- I got something like a A (in graphics), 2 Cs and a D- they just weren’t enough for the uni course I wanted.
I could have got into a university via clearings, but I didn’t want to give up on my course dreams, and so instead decided to repeat the second year of my a-levels at school and apply again for the next year. That summer, I got my results, and although I didn’t get the grades needed to get into my first choice university (and on to an optometry course) I had the grades to get into my second choice: Lancaster University to study Biochemistry.
I absolutely loved my time at Lancaster, I enjoyed learning so much! My degree was focused on Biochemistry, so I had a few mandatory courses I needed to complete. But, I was still able to pick a few courses- I chose genetics, cell biology, immunology and parasitology… I had a had a great range. I quickly realised I did not entirely enjoy genetics, and so didn’t continue that to my third year!
In my second year (I think!) I went to Gatsby plant summer school– (I had heard about at the end of a microbiology lecture, and decided to apply!) the summer program is co-ordinated by lots of different univeristies and showcases amazing plant science. At the time… I enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure about a career in plant science (!)
In my third year I decided to do my undergraduate project based in the “parasitology and immunology” topic area, end ended up working on Trypanosomes, (the parasite that causes bovine trypanosomosis, or sleeping sickness).
Towards the end of my third year my course lecturer sat me down and said “so, what you going to do next” I replied with “I do not know”. He told me to consider a PhD, something which I had never really considered before… and so I started looking at PhD projects and applying to programmes. At the time, these were all human-disease related and the underlying biochemical mechanisms.
On to a PhD
I graduated in the summer, and as I had no PhD programme sorted yet, I moved back home and got a part time job as I continued applying to programmes. After graduating you have a bit of a time period which if you don’t get a PhD position in, you very rapidly lose appeal…. at this point I wasn’t sure what to do. Go back to uni and do a masters? or just pack in science and get a job instead? I had a mini crisis, and after a lot of long conversations with my parents, I decided to look at getting a masters (by research) and went full time at work for a year in order to be able to fund my studies.
Again, looking at masters projects I focused on projects geared towards human health. I decided on a masters by research in medical Microbiology at Bath university- it was great but such hard work! I did 2 research projects, as well as taught modules, seminars and literature reviews. As part of my course we did a module called ‘news and views’ and for one piece of coursework we had to attend a seminar and write a analysis on the seminar given. We had to attend the one assigned to our course, but could also go to any others being held in the department which caught our interest. One of my friends was doing a masters in plant science, and I happened to go along with her to her course-require seminar. Afterwards we sat and had lunch, and I talked to her more about plant science- something I didn’t do a lot of. She talked with so much enthusiasm that this chat actually made me consider looking into a PhD more based in biochemistry… in plants.
Fast forward to a few months later, and I had managed to get a PhD position! It was at the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia- with Prof. Cathie Martin, and Dr Jelena Gavrilovic, and would be looking at using tomatoes a biofactory for the production of medicinal compounds, and then testing these compounds in a ex vivo human skin assay.
I worked mainly at the John Innes Centre for the first 2 years of my PhD, and it was at this point that I realised how much I had been missing out on in regards to plant. By the end of the third year of my PhD, I realised that although I found human biology fascinating and loved my project, I wanted to continue a career in plant science.
This is where I ran into a problem… As my PhD was a half/half project- i.e half human cell biology/ half plant science, I didn’t actually have that much plant science knowledge. This meant that when applying to jobs and postdocs, I wasn’t really qualified.
3 months as a Research assistant
But, I was extremely lucky! One of my supervisors (Prof. Cathie Martin) had heard on the grapevine that Prof. Alison Smith was looking for someone willing to help out on a short term project working on potato starch. The timing was perfect as I had just finished my PhD project, and so just 2 weeks after hand in, I was working as a research assistant in another plant lab. It was great as it would give me some much needed extra experience in plant-based analysis, and give me a much needed boost for applying to postdoc positions.
Becoming a Postdoc
And this is where I progress to my current career- as a Postdoc in a starch lab (my supervisor is Dr David Seung) at the John Innes Centre. Whilst I was in Alison’s lab, David was starting out, really, he was on a BBSRC Future Leader Fellowship and was just about to start up his own lab. Once again, I was in the right place at the right time, and having really enjoyed my work in potato starch, I decided to apply for the Postdoc position being advertised in his new lab.
And so now, I am a happy Postdoc trying to figure out how starch is initiated in the endosperm (grains) of wheat!
Some things to think about…
As you can see, my career has been far from straight forward. I did not have a set career plan, and in fact, I flitted around different subject areas of science.
One of the things I highly recommend you to do (if you are at university) is to try and get a wide experience of science. Find out what you do like, and what you don’t. Get some lab experience, and see what research is truly like- and if that is something you would like to do.
A lot of scientists do change subject area- for example like myself, from human cell biology and biochemistry to plant biology and biochemistry. A lot of the underlying processes, lab work, and analyses are very similar- a western blot is a western blot! But it also does require you finding someone, or a institute willing to help train you up and give you the extra information you need. luckily for me, David was great in this- I had never worked on wheat before, and he was there helping to show me the ropes and training me in the beginning.
I want to finish with saying that although there are people who have the ‘ideal’ career path, not everyone does. you may end up, like me, taking a more circuitous route, but that isn’t always a bad thing. As long as you love what you do, and find the right job for you, it doesn’t matter so much about the route you took to get there!
I hope you enjoyed this story of my career so far!
Till the next post, bye!