Case study

Analytical scientist — Tom Stappenbeck

After graduating with a BSc in chemistry and working in the sustainability sector, Tom embarked on a career change to get back in the lab

Why did you choose to become an analytical scientist?

I was looking to change sectors from my previous job after completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Sustainable Chemical Engineering. I wanted to get back to working in a laboratory environment after completing my degree, when I saw an advertisement for the role on LinkedIn.

What does your role involve?

I do a range of testing as part of the quality control process for pre-clinical drug development, which determines if the drugs produced on-site meet regulatory quality standards before potentially being dosed in humans.

I mostly work on stability studies, meaning we see if a drug will maintain a suitable level of quality over time. For instance, monitoring a substance to see if any harmful impurities will be formed over its shelf life.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I find it rewarding to work on new potential treatments and medicines. A drug which recently went to clinical trial was featured all over the news as it was the first of its kind. Seeing this was an achievement after playing a small part in the process.

In what way is your degree relevant?

A lot of the theory from my undergraduate degree is relevant to my day-to-day work and helps me understand on a more fundamental level what's going on. The practical lab experience from my Bachelors also helped me a lot when I was first starting in my role.

I chose my postgraduate course as I wasn't sure what I wanted to do straight out of university - it was in a different field and helped me to secure my last job in the sustainability sector. After enrolling on the MSc course, I graduated with a PGDip. The experience helped me to grow and develop transferable skills, as I had to bounce back from not doing as well as I'd hoped.

How has your role developed?

As I've gained more experience, I've been taught new analytical techniques. There have also been opportunities to take on new responsibilities such as training others, continual process improvement, and involvement in the management of controlled drugs and precursors on site.

By nature, the role is energy and resource-intensive, so I care deeply about sustainability and trying to minimise waste as much as possible in my own lab by searching for ways to work more efficiently.

What three skills are needed for a career in chemistry?

  • Problem solving - Unexpected results happen and things go wrong, so you have to be able to step back and assess all available information when figuring out if something is a genuine result or what the root cause of an issue could be.
  • Initiative - It's a complex technical field but there are lots of useful resources and knowledgeable people out there. Actively seeking out additional guidance and information helps a lot.
  • Communication - The work involves a lot of collaboration. You sometimes have to negotiate within your own team when working through a problem, as well as liaising with other areas of the business, like project management or compliance, or getting assistance from technicians and facilities. Good communication within and across disciplines helps make everything go smoother.

What are your career ambitions?

I would eventually like to get back to doing more organic chemistry and maybe go down the process development route, which means outlining the specific steps to produce a specific molecule. I've also enjoyed learning more about the business and regulatory side of the sector, and I'd like to explore areas like compliance.

What advice do you have for others interested in becoming a clinical scientist?

Research the specific industry you want to get into and its niches. If you don't have any industry experience, then prepare for interviews by learning about the relevant regulations for that sector, what techniques and instrumentation are typically used, and what advances there have been. This can help ensure that you're pursuing a field that aligns with your interests.

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