Case study

Biochemistry student — Rebecca Downing

A year-long industry placement abroad can be a great way to deepen your knowledge, develop research skills and prepare you for a career in science, as Rebecca found out

Tell us about your course...

After studying biology, chemistry, maths and French at A-level, a degree in biochemistry at the University of Liverpool was my next step. I felt it would be a sufficiently general first year to then allow me to focus on my interests as my degree progressed.

I decided to incorporate a year in industry so that I could gain more research experience. The knowledge that I would be applying to major pharmaceutical companies during my second year was a real motivation to immerse myself in what biochemistry had to offer.

Once I had started my studies, the opportunity to carry out my industrial placement during my fourth year as opposed to my third year - as a way of gaining an MBiolSci rather than a BSc with a year in industry - was proposed to me.

I opted for the MBiolSci so that I could have the experience of my Bachelors thesis at university first, and then take this with me to an industrial placement and help realise my ambitions beyond my Masters.

What did you enjoy most and what were the biggest challenges?

I moved away from my home city, so I expanded my cultural awareness by meeting students of many nationalities. My first year studies provided me with a foundation in many scientific fields.

I defined my interests over the course of my degree, developing particular interests in DNA damage and repair and cancer-related topics, as these fitted with why I originally decided to study biochemistry. Understanding how and why a pathway may have been altered in a disease state compared to a normal state was one of the main reasons I pursued my degree.

To develop my awareness in other disciplines of science, I attended a plant science summer school, thus engaging in a different area of science and learning new things. I also worked as an activity leader for a summer camp for French students in England, maintaining my interest in foreign languages.

After my second year, I did an eight-week summer research placement at Aston University. My project was about solubilising and purifying membrane proteins and the research I carried out resulted in a publication.

As for challenges, I came to the university without any of my friends, and this meant building an entirely new support network. However, now I see this was a fantastic way to get involved in different activities and meet people in different places, forming many strong friendships.

Explain a bit more about your time abroad…

The opportunity to spend a year at Novartis in Basel was certainly an unforgettable and invaluable experience for me. I enriched myself culturally, socially and academically. I worked in the laboratory on a daily basis, and I was involved in the development of a new assay (or scientific method of analysis) for genotoxicity testing.

The Pig-A assay measures gene mutation and it is anticipated that this assay will overcome the limitations of existing assays, once validated. My role was to contribute to this validation effort and I was also involved in the development of an in vitro version of the assay.

I improved my laboratory skills and began shaping my scientific career. I found a good balance between completing my Novartis and Masters work because Novartis operates with flexitime. My boss and the team were extremely welcoming, enabling me to benefit from the dynamic and innovative environment.

The data I obtained was used to start writing publications and I was involved in producing these.

I lived in three student residences over the year, coming into contact with University of Basel students and Novartis interns. This opened me up to more cultures and by adapting my way of life to the way of life in Switzerland, my character grew more.

Basel is ideally located to travel around Switzerland, France and Germany. I also enjoyed festivals and new sports such as water skiing.

How have your studies informed your career plans?

During my time at Novartis, I consolidated my ambitions beyond my Masters degree. Through discussions with other Novartis associates, I was fortunate to secure a one-month summer research placement at the Institut de Génétique Moléculaire de Montpellier, after finishing my Masters degree.

I feel it is fantastic to be able to join as many laboratories as possible to learn new things and exchange knowledge. I always knew I wanted to do a PhD to combine my interests in DNA damage and repair and cancer-related topics.

At university, I had many lectures about breast cancer, and I became very interested in learning more about this type of cancer and potential treatment options too. So when a position at Barts Cancer Institute in London presented itself, on the subject of breast cancer and Herceptin treatment in a group that also has links to DNA damage and repair and other cancer research, I knew this was the PhD I wanted to pursue.

I was invited for interview and I was offered the position shortly afterwards, to start in September 2015.

Do you have any advice for others?

My main advice would be that experience is essential. The more opportunities you can get involved in to broaden your skills both inside and outside of the laboratory, the more this helps to equip you for the decisions you would like to make beyond your studies.

A career in science is one where you can learn all the time, and where you can work in many environments.