PhD student in Molecular Virology and science blogger.
Centre for Infection and Immunity, Queen’s University, Belfast.
1st class BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology from Queen’s University, Belfast.
I used to believe that the only reason I was doing this was because I was good at science in school and university, but I’ve come to realise that I have always been a bit into science my whole life, what with dinosaurs, fossils and chemistry. I guess if you couple a somewhat geeky school kid who has a passion for science with good teachers and mentors, you’ll get a potential research scientist. Or maybe that is just what worked for me. It’s all about realising what you’re interested in early on so you can leave behind the boring parts, and I was really interested in was the molecular side of things.
From when I arrive in the morning, my time is mostly taken up with me being in the lab working with DNA and bacteria, or tissue culture where I am working with and taking care of our cell lines and viruses. I’ll usually plan what experiments I have to carry out the previous day and then I can just get down to the work, yet the most time-consuming aspect is sitting down and looking through the data you get back. This is mostly done with copious amounts of caffeine. During coffee breaks – or that 15 minutes I get for lunch – I will try and make myself read what new papers have been published in my field, then in the quiet minutes of my working day (or maybe at night) I enjoy writing about science (specifically virology and microbiology) on my blog. It really forces you to look at the literature and analyse it. Plus communicating science to a wider audience can be very worthwhile.
I mostly love the whole scientific enterprise: coming up with an idea (maybe one your supervisor has put forward), performing the experiments, looking at the results and coming up with new hypotheses or ideas about further work that could be done. It can be really satisfying when it works. Sadly it can also get a bit claustrophobic being in the lab or office all day and it is then necessary to get out for a while and travel (science really makes this possible as there are so many conferences out there in excellent locations). I have just been awarded the Society’s President’s Fund award (now the Research Visit Grants scheme) to partially finance my travel to Bethesda in Maryland, USA to work in the labs at the Food & Drug Administration. So just remember that there are so many opportunities like this to get out and travel with science. Recently, I have also been volunteering with the UK Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) who work hard at promoting and communicating science-related subjects to school children across the country.
Being in the lab and doing experiments is a double-edged sword and sometimes it can be a bit depressing being stuck inside all day, but as I said earlier, it is usually all worth it in the end. I have yet to come across something which I don’t really enjoy. Although I could imagine that in a few years I may have some more to add to this.
Time management would definitely be a major skill required for a research scientist. You’ve really got to be able to do ten things in the lab at once, while simultaneously answering emails and making coffee. I also think being able to handle it when your latest results come back not looking exactly as you had predicted. Though it also works the other way; you should be able to effectively celebrate when your experiments go well! On top of the practical nature of the job there is the whole intellectual element to it – know what you are doing, why you are doing it and what to do next so your supervisor doesn't have to tell you.
Firstly: it’s not always going to work the first time, nor the second (maybe not the third) but keep at it and eventually you will get there – determination is very important in science. And secondly: keep reading. All the information and ideas may already be in the science literature, you’ve just got to find them. Yet saying that, it’s sometimes good to be original!