Case study

Chemical biologist — John Woodland

John studied for a PhD in chemistry at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He now works as a chemical biologist for the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre and department of chemistry at the university

Why did you decide on a career in science?

I have always been interested in molecules and because everything in the world is made of molecules, understanding chemistry is like understanding the secrets of the universe. I want to make a positive contribution to society and being a scientist seemed to be a small way to do that.

How did you get your job?

I studied at the University of Cape Town and, while I was a postgraduate student, the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre, Africa's leading integrated drug discovery platform, was founded.

Applying my chemistry skills to the development of new medicines seemed like an obvious way to make a positive contribution to the African continent. I was fortunate to join the H3D Centre as a postdoctoral fellow in medicinal chemistry and the rest, as they say, is history.

What's a typical working day like as a postdoctoral research fellow?

One of the best aspects of the job is that it is extremely varied. I enjoy writing and so I spend quite of lot of my time composing and reviewing reports, manuscripts and presentations.

I am fortunate to supervise several postgraduate students and I enjoy supporting them on their academic journeys and the interesting twists and turns that their projects take.

One of my passions is fluorescence microscopy and so I also love spending time at the spectrofluorimeter or microscope.

There are also seminars, outreach activities and all sorts of other things going on, so one is never bored.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

I would say that I enjoy my interactions with people the most, whether my postgraduate students, undergraduate students (teaching and lecturing) or my colleagues, whom I admire.

My work in bioimaging also means that I get to illuminate and visualise beautiful biological phenomena under the microscope and it is a thrill to capture these images and share them with others.

What are the challenges?

One challenge is the slow pace of science. Science is an incremental process, and we only very slowly build up our understanding of a chemical or biological system. This always takes longer than one expects and at the end of the day, you may wonder what you have been doing all day even though you have been working hard for many hours.

What three skills are needed for a career in science?

  • Curiosity - You should be deeply interested in what you are doing, not only on a theoretical level, but also the potential applications and this will help to keep you motivated when the going gets tough.
  • Resilience - being able to bounce back from failure. Even the best-designed experiments can fail, which can be disheartening but this also means that you are a step closer to understanding your system and figuring out what is going on. Even negative data are valuable.
  • Time management - There is always too much to do whether experiments in the lab, preparing lectures or other administrative tasks. It is also important to find the balance that is right for you between your personal life and your career.

Do you need to complete any continuing professional development in your role?

Yes, absolutely. One of the great things about being a scientist is that you are always learning, and that you don't need to apologise for saying 'I'm not sure' and then going away to find the answer. There are always new things (and skills) to learn.

The chemistry community is kind, caring and compassionate. Being a member of large professional societies like the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Chemical Society mean that one is always connected to something bigger than oneself, and these communities provide amazing support and resources to their members.

What are your career ambitions?

To make a positive contribution to society through science. I am also passionate about scientific literacy and education, particularly in the South African context, and so I do my bit to help to bridge the gap between science and society by participating in outreach programmes, giving public talks, and so on.

Tell us about issues affecting the science/chemistry sector today.

  • Science (and chemistry, in particular) is in a unique position to address many of the challenges facing society today. From climate change to health and disease, there is a reason that chemistry is referred to as the 'central science'. (We also need to change public perceptions of chemistry, most of which are indifferent or negative.)
  • Funding can be difficult to come by, and academic lifestyles are demanding. It can be particularly challenging for young researchers to establish themselves and find stability.

What advice can you give to other aspiring scientists?

For me, science is the ultimate career you get to satisfy your own curiosity, uncover the secrets of the universe, have an impact on others and society, and teach and train the next generation of scientists. Science offers so many possibilities as a career, whether that is at the lab bench, communicating science to the public, or mentoring others.

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