Case study

Senior PhD research associate — Jennifer Brookes

After a varied academic background, Jennifer now works at the London Centre for Nanotechnology with i-Sense, a programme working to develop early-warning sensing systems for infectious diseases

How did you get your job?

I have a BSc in Physics and Philosophy from King’s College, London, an MSc in Physics and a PhD in Theoretical Physics from University College London.

I was known to my current line manager, Prof Rachel McKendry, and the institution at UCL from my previous PhD research. After my PhD, I won a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship which funded research visits to MIT and Harvard in the US for four years. Once I'd completed this fellowship, I came back to the UK and got back in touch with the London Centre for Nanotechnology. Rachel offered me a position as consultant within i-Sense which was then extended to a three year contract.

What's a typical working day like?

I work in theoretical and computational biophysics, so my days are spent in a 'dry lab' - in front of a computer. A typical working day for me starts with setting up and test running a simulation to generate data for me to analyse later. Once the simulations are up and running I try to stay on top of literature in the area. As well as reading I'll write up my thoughts and notes on the computational work I'm doing.

Depending on the results and progress of the projects I run, I may write drafts of papers for publications, prepare figures or write talks for presentations. When I have students during term time, I'll spend an hour or so answering emails and meeting with them to run through computational protocols and may have meetings or seminars to attend.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy thinking of new conjectures and hypotheses, and deciphering results. I also find giving or observing a good talk and sharing results at conferences really inspirational and rewarding.

What are the challenges?

Sometimes the computational part of my research can be difficult - I can be limited by convergence, efficiency, space and time. While frustrating, working through these limitations is worth it in the end when there are interesting results to look at.

My degrees have given me certain basic skills that are relevant and important in setting myself up for a research career

In what way are your degrees relevant?

My degrees have given me certain basic skills in maths and problem solving. Learning to do thorough literature searches and meeting influential lecturers in the field has also been relevant and important in setting myself up for a research career.

How has your role developed? What are your career ambitions?

I've moved from taking instruction from my supervisors to having more freedom and choice in projects, as well as students of my own to mentor.

My career ambition is to become a lecturer in physics, with applications in biology.

What advice can you give to others looking to get into this job?

Be enthusiastic, patient and focused in your work. Practically, the best thing you can do is talk to people. Find out who you would work well with and evaluate what sort of team you'd be the most productive and happiest in.

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