Case study

Research assistant — Emma Haberman

Emma used the skills she gained in her degree to work in lab-based research. She now enjoys collaborating with people who share a common interest

How did you get started in this job?

I originally applied for a PhD position within the lab I currently work in. After being unsuccessful, I enquired about any research assistant positions with the view of gaining experience and making myself a more competitive candidate for when I applied for PhDs again.

What's a typical working day like for you?

I'm responsible for planning my time, including experiments and analysis for a number of different projects, and also finding time for any odd jobs.

On a busy day where I've planned an experiment I'll begin at 7am, and depending on what I'm doing, normally using a flow cytometry (FACS) machine, will finish between 3pm and 6pm.

On a quieter day, I'll arrive at 9.30am (unless we have a lab meeting or journal club), plan my next experiments, finish any outstanding analysis, maybe run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and leave at around 6pm.

What projects or research are you currently involved in?

Currently, I'm involved in investigating the importance of a number of signalling mechanisms and transcription factors in the development of thymic epithelial cells, and their subsequent role in the production of a functional T-cell repertoire.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I enjoy being able to contribute to research in thymus biology - an area of medical science which really interests me. I like the variety of my day-to-day activities, and working with and learning from a group of people who all share a common interest is great.

What are the challenges?

One major challenge has been learning to plan experiments for different projects around each other, and trying to use my time as efficiently as possible. This skill will definitely benefit me in the future. Another challenge has been learning a number of new techniques specific to the lab I'm in, and also using new machines in the lab, such as the FACS machine.

How relevant is your degree?

My knowledge of biology and the application of practical techniques came from teaching during my degree. I also feel like I began to think like a scientist during university - a skill which I'm still developing.

Notably, during both my dissertation and elective summer project, I learned the importance of understanding what I'm doing in practical work. It also made me think about the interpretation and presentation of data and how I can use this to tell my scientific 'story'.

How did your degree help you land your job?

Studying both immunology and epigenetics during my final year gave me a better understanding of these fields, which are relevant to my current area of research. Importantly, having practical experience and accompanying references, through my dissertation and elective summer placement, were crucial to this position.

How has your role developed?

I'm involved in a number of projects surrounding thymus biology, and hope to gain both experience and publications through this work.

How could someone else get into your area of work?

Identify an area of interest, and find labs working within that field (use web searches and speak to lecturers - science is a very small world).

Speak to principal investigators (PIs) as soon as possible - email and Skype are very useful tools in meeting these people initially. Don't be afraid to contact PIs and use these opportunities to find out more about their current work, to determine whether you'd be interested in getting involved.

Utilise the people around you for applications and interviews. Both lecturers and the careers service are happy to give advice on things like CVs, cover letters and interview techniques – make the most of it.

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