Ten-minute chat - working in biomedical science as a pathologist
What made you become a pathologist?
Setting out for Liverpool vet school, thanks to the support of my local practice, Summerleaze, in Maidenhead, I had a clear ambition to be a large animal/mixed vet. I never imagined becoming a mouse pathologist or even knew such a job might exist. At vet school in Liverpool I started to realise the fascination of the science behind disease that triggered my career interest in research and pathology.
How did you get to where you are today?
At vet school I loved pathology and was fascinated by the bigger picture of biological research. I knew from the second year that I wasn't likely to go into practice and, unusually, I started a PhD in sheep reproductive physiology at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen immediately after graduating.
Doing the PhD confirmed my interest in science and I continued with great support from Hugh Miller's group in postdoctoral roles studying immunology at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh. Eventually, I was appointed to a lectureship in veterinary pathology and learnt my diagnostic pathology on the job under the guidance of Rod Else and colleagues. Being increasingly interested in the role of research and pathology in human health I moved into the pharmaceutical industry working for GlaxoSmithKline and Covance, where I gained experience of translational research and the drug development process. Importantly, I gained a great deal of experience in mouse pathology, which is the mainstay of my current role. I moved back to academia at the Royal Veterinary College funded by an Medical Research Council skills gap award – to encourage the transfer of knowledge between industry and academia. Finally, I moved to my current role as unit pathologist at the Mary Lyon Centre, MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics.
What does your job involve?
My role involves protecting the health and welfare of the thousands of mice we have on site, as well as investigating the pathology of our experimental mice. The unit is interested in the genetic basis of human disease and my role is to identify any pathology that occurs in our genetically altered mice and relate it to possible human disease syndromes. I also continue to be involved in undergraduate and postgraduate training in pathology as well as contributing to the management of the unit.
What do you like about your job?
In common with any veterinary career, the team of people you work with is the most important factor. In my current job there is also the constant challenge of working with ideas and scientists who are at the forefront of biomedical knowledge. Most importantly, I still love looking down the microscope and trying to understand what I can see.
What do you not like?
The rate of change in biological knowledge is huge and this is a real double-edged sword – being both endlessly fascinating, but also very difficult to keep up with.
Why is your job important?
The training you receive as a vet extends from genes to clinical disease and is, by its nature, a training in comparative biology. No other scientists (including medics) have this comparative overview and so vets form a vital and often overlooked part of biomedical science teams, being in a position to give meaning to experimental findings both in terms of basic biology and their potential impact across species including humans.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
My experience is that it is very hard to control your career path. If you want to be taken seriously in biomedical science research, a PhD, preferably with some independent postdoc research, is probably a must and training in pathology gives you specific and unique skills.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Having a crippling fear of public speaking, it was a revelation to hear a well-known comedian confess in an interview that he was physically sick before every performance. This hasn't made public speaking any easier, but at least I know it's normal to feel the fear.
What was your proudest moment?
Professionally – gaining my FRCPath; personally – completing the London marathon.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
As a pathologist there have been many such moments, most of which are too embarrassing to print. I'm not sure if it's embarrassing to reveal that my secret desire is to be on Strictly Come Dancing...