From cancer research to COVID-19 testing

– How the pandemic changed my perspective on a career in laboratory science –

For the majority of the global population, 2020 has been a year of continuous change and uncertainty, from being socially isolated from our loved ones to government furlough schemes being established within a matter of days. As the year comes to a close, I, like many others, have been reflecting on how the pandemic has influenced my perspective on all aspects of daily life. Fortunately, I, alongside other researchers, gained the opportunity to expand our career skill sets by volunteering at the UK’s COVID-19 testing lab network. This network is known as the Lighthouse Labs  – and to say this was a unique opportunity would only undermine the insight many of us have since gained.

Image by holdentrils from Pixabay

I first began volunteering at the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow (LLiG) in May, after trying to adapt my wholly-practical role as a research technician to being home-office friendly. As for many, working from home was a challenge, however, like many other researchers, I embraced the chance to learn data science and coding, which is expected to become a key skill in medical science within the next few years. That said, no number of coding courses would override the deep rooted desire to simply hold a pipette and make a difference at a time of national crisis. Despite my underlying anxiety, that accompanied leaving my loved ones for who-knows-how-long, the opportunity to work with fellow scientists from a variety of backgrounds – and gain unique insight into industry, academia and public health was one I knew I’d regret passing up.

As an academic researcher, it was interesting to see a common research method, qPCR, used on a diagnostic scale and it has been fantastic to have contributed, in any capacity, to the scale of the operation that it is to date. Before being seconded, or transferred from my research role to a laboratory scientist for LLiG, I had a limited appreciation of the regulatory aspects of diagnostic science, such as quality control, sample tracking and benefits to automation. These aspects of laboratory science are rarely focused upon whilst studying medical science at university – and are a vast contrast to the manual, time-consuming aspects of academic research facilities.

Working along with colleagues from several departments, of multiple universities and disciplines, has also been a highlight and pleasure. More specifically, I enjoyed hearing about everybody’s unique career pathway in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and can honestly say that working at the LLiG enables young, early career scientists, like myself, to put themselves forward for positions of responsibility, without taking on everything at once. Under the guidance of other senior scientists and the team leaders at the Lighthouse, I was fortunate enough to become a workstation lead and really enjoyed training younger staff members and watching them build their own confidence. 

Image by fernando zhiminaicela from Pixabay 

In academia, there is always an underlying pressure to gather data for conferences, or lab meetings, or seminars in addition to applying for funding, writing up a laboratory notebook and designing your next experiment. Although I had thought about a career in industry, prior to working at LLiG, I knew very little about the role of a Biomedical Scientist (BMS), or Clinical Scientist, both of which are vital to our NHS, yet are often less focused upon in career talks. As a young scientist, this experience has provided invaluable insight into the logistical aspect of setting up a lab space and opportunity to lead a small, but vital, team of volunteers. These non-science skills can be difficult for young scientists to gain due to the academic framework that PhD students are required to fulfil. However, alongside resilience, leadership skills are vital for researchers at all levels of their career, whether they are a lab technician, PhD student, or post-doctoral researcher. I have now returned to research with enhanced leadership skills and am excited to showcase such skill sets, moving forward in our projects.

Lastly, it remains no secret that many of us young researchers tend to overlook the importance of what we do, and in my experience, it is easy to under sell the importance of laboratory science for population healthcare. Since leaving the Lighthouse lab, many friends have asked me about my experience and what I have learnt from it, so I hope that by writing this article I have inspired others to take (and embrace) opportunities when they arise, as you never know how it may change your perspective and career path. It’s fair to say night shift can be incredibly taxing and working in a lab can be a little stressful at times, however, this experience has only confirmed me that a career in science will always be rewarding and dynamic – from all perspectives.

I just wanted to finish with a huge thank you to everyone at the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow, past and present for always being open to new ideas, or non-work related coffee chats + particularly to my workstation team(s); Natasha, Kris, Emily, Chloe, Pete, Robert and AnnaI hope to see you all again soon!

Published by Holly Leslie

Full-time Cancer Researcher + Freelance Science Writer | MRes, BSc | Since discovering my passion for science writing during my final year of undergraduate study, I've written articles for University newspapers, The Gaudie and Redbrick and two Science magazines, Wonk! and the Glasgow Insight to Science and Technology (GIST)

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