I am a biomedical scientist, not a ‘lab rat’

Surprisingly many people, friends and family alike, still wonder what I and other scientists around me are doing. Perhaps slightly selfish, this post will spare me a lot of repeated explanation. Nothing is easier than saying: “Check out my blog.. It’s all there.” More importantly, however, I hope that it will serve as a brief insight into life as a (developing) biomedical scientist to the wider public as well as to those interested in pursuing a biomedical research career themselves. Indeed, a biomedical scientist is nothing like the lonely, miserable lab rat some people might believe them to be. I am based at the University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories (MRL), housed in the Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS) on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (Addenbrooke’s Hospital site; website: MRL-IMS). As the name suggests, the mission of our Institute is to undertake fundamental research into metabolism and apply this new knowledge in the generation of novel health strategies for treating and preventing diabetes, obesity and other related metabolic disorders. This is one of the main reasons why we can’t be lonely lab rats. Scientific innovation requires collaboration across multiple groups with different areas of expertise, hence why the MRL includes roughly 150 scientists, organised into 20 research groups. To foster collaboration, we are all working in the same open lab space, where each group (i.e. lab) has its own bay area, but there are no walls separating the different bays. Each group further has a ‘boss’, the so-called ‘principle investigator’, or PI, who has his own employees (Post Docs and research assistants) and often supervises one or several PhD students, like me! The more senior the boss, the less time he/she spends in the laboratory. In fact, senior PIs rarely – if ever – make it into the lab area, which of course is separated from the regular office area where they spend most of their time. PIs are busy managing their business (i.e. research group), they write grant applications to get more funding for their research, they write scientific papers, and more than anything – they travel all over the world to present their lab’s research and to establish new collaborations. A PI is a leader, just like the head of a company, and it takes hard work and many years to become one. So what is a biomedical PhD student doing? Well, depending on the period, we may spend 90 % of our time in the lab, working on experiments. Experiments are alfa and omega to our progress (and our PI’s satisfaction) because they eventually yield results that become published in prominent scientific journals. The more papers a lab publishes  – provided they are of the right quality – the better the chance of its PI to obtain additional funding. Moreover, experimental results are key to our final PhD dissertation, a huge body of work containing the sweat and tears of the PhD years. Experimental findings also open the doors to a number of exciting conferences, at home and abroad, where we are allowed to present our work to the wider scientific community, including to people we may have come across in our university textbooks!  Papers, reports, dissertations, preparation of presentations and data analysis are the main reasons why PhD students may have periods of no lab work, instead spending 100 % of our time in front of the computer. As a result, PhD students develop key transferable skills which, quite literary, can be transferred to other jobs in the future. Some of these skills include communication, project management, organisation, discipline and stress resilience. I am not going to lie – PhD life is not all rosy. It can be tough, very tough. But when you truly enjoy doing something, you persist even when it is hard. Just like passionate football players would not quit even when the team has lost all recent games, a passionate scientist does not give up science just because a particular experiment has failed to work repeatedly. The joy of that miniature step forward every time I discover something new is what keeps me motivated and confident that there is no better job than the one that feels like a hobby. For me, it not only feels like – it is my hobby.


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