Happy to answer your questions about careers, science and everything in-between!
Education:Before uni, I finished primary and secondary education in Romania. Then I did my undergrad and PhD degrees at the University of Edinburgh.
Qualifications:I received a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in molecular genetics and I got my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in human statistical genetics.
Work History:I am currently in my first 'real job' after having been a student for 21 years!
My job title is simply 'Scientist'!
I hunt for genes that, when functioning incorrectly, might be involved in causing disease (using computers and lots of human genetic data)!
I do DNA wizardry! No, it’s nothing quite so magical and glamorous. Read on for the full story..
Ever since I read my first science book (it was a book about how the body works and it had many pictures in it), I wanted to learn more about the world around me. This is how I ended up studying the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) in high school.
I continued to learn about biology at university, focusing on genetics, as I am fascinated by how we are the products of recipes (called genes) written in DNA, which is like a biological cookbook that tells our bodies how to make us. The recipes in this cookbook are broadly the same in all of us, but some may contain typos (called mutations) that cause the end product to be different.
Sometimes these mutations are harmless: for example, a cupcake recipe that asks for blue instead of green food colouring – the end product will still be a cupcake that tastes the same, but looks different. A mutation like this is responsible for the blue or green eye colour some of you may have.
Sometimes mutations can be harmful, giving the wrong instructions, like the cupcake recipe calling for onions instead of eggs. These mutations can cause diseases such as cancer or increase your chances of developing dangerous conditions such as a high blood pressure or diabetes.
What I do for my work is take lots of people, measure a specific trait (such as blood pressure) in all of them, read their DNA recipes (this is called DNA sequencing or genotyping) and find the typos that seem to come up more often in people who have high blood pressure and are seen only rarely (or never) in people with lower blood pressure. Once we know what the recipe does and how the typo changes its end results, we can try to correct it by correcting the typo (this is called gene therapy) or by leaving the typo in, but providing a ‘corrections’ page in the form of drugs.
My Typical Day
Wake up, go to work, make tea, get computer program error, bash head on keyboard, fix problem, eat biscuits, get new computer program error..
At 8:15, my alarm rings. I stay in bed for 15 more minutes, gathering the willpower to get up and go to work. At work, the first thing I do is make myself some tea (I don’t consider myself grown-up enough to drink coffee). I don’t make a cup of it, I make a whole jug. Yes, a jug. The combination of the hot water tap being far away and me being lazy means that until lunch, I only have as much liquid to drink as I fetch on this morning trip, so I might as well make the journey to the tap worthwhile.
Once I have my tea, I turn my computer on, and try to run one of the programs that does the complicated statistics and maths for me that I do not understand myself. Sometimes, I get a reasonable answer and sometimes, I get a jumbled mess – probably because I messed up somewhere. In these cases, I go back to try to fix the error (called a ‘bug’), and hope for the best! I often joke that I spend 95% of my time figuring out how to tell the computer to do what I want it to, and so only have 5% of the time to look at, and make sense of, the actual results!
I am not the only one who faces such problems on a day-to-day basis, every researcher does in some way. Doing research is not simply asking a question, pushing a few buttons (or doing a few experiments) and receiving an answer, it is about getting REALLY creative with your problem solving, about not giving up even when it seems like everything is plotting against you, and about learning something new along the way.
After a day of hard work, I can’t wait to go home and reward myself with some well-earned rest, in the form of video games!
How I got into this job
I finished my PhD and wanted to work somewhere that wasn't a university.
I have been a student since I was 6. Given that I am now 27, it means I spent most of my life studying! So I was relieved when, last November, I successfully defended my thesis (the 200-page tome that was the result of four years of my work!), and was granted a PhD – this means that I now get to put Dr. in front of my name (and use it to fool people into believing that I am a grown-up).
While I was doing my research, I realised that my work is probably not as ground-breaking and amazing as my supervisor would have wanted it to be, and that my work was probably never going to save any lives. While there are many absolutely brilliant people doing brilliant science within universities, I just didn’t feel like I was one of those people.
This is why instead of staying on as a researcher at university, I decided to try my luck at a company whose purpose it is to figure out how our genetic typos lead to diseases, and, in collaborations with drug companies, try to develop drugs that correct these typos.
My PhD armed me with the exact skills that I have been putting to very good use within my company, and I can honestly say that I really enjoy what I do now, and that I definitely feel like I’m on the right track to really helping to make a difference to people who have diseases for which limited, or no treatments exist.
In addition to science, I also like to tinker with creating visually interesting presentations, and I also try my hand at writing the occasional blog post or news article – for example, while I was at uni, I used to write for the student newspaper and one of my articles even won a science writing competition advertised by Nature, one of the leading scientific journals – which has led me to write several articles for their blog!
What's the best thing you've ever done in your career?
I used Star Wars and Game of Thrones as the central topics of a presentation about my work, and it even made sense. Also, I did a stand-up comedy sketch about my work and it made people laugh!
What advice would you give someone who wants to be in the same career as you?
You don't need to have a plan from the beginning - just be passionate about what interests you, and don't be afraid to take the occasional leap of faith and try something completely new!
What do you see as your next step in your career?
I am currently very happy in my new role, and I would like to continue doing what I do now, at least for the time being.
What other sorts of jobs can you do with your qualifications?
Anything that requires a basic knowledge in statistics and programming! And with the ever-increasing amounts of data just waiting to be analysed, I could be doing a lot of different jobs in many different fields - I just lucked out in that I got to stay in the field of genetics!
What's the best part of your current job?
Lots of short, exciting projects to work on, alongside very skilled and knowledgeable people - I can get things done in half the time and there is a real sense of community!
What don't you like about your current job?
I've not found anything I really dislike, yet!