Niamh Connolly talks to Smart Futures about her career as a Post-doctoral researcher.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
In biomedical research, we try to solve problems that can lead to better medical treatments or diagnoses. For me, this involves doing experiments, trying to figure out what the results of these experiments mean, and combining it all into a storyline that makes sense and brings the knowledge in the field forward.
My job is a little bit different in that I split my time between experiments in the lab (“wet” research) and computer programming or modelling on the computer (“dry” research) – so I need the skills required for both.
In the lab, I need to know how to use a pipette, a microscope, or other equipment around the lab (skills I learned during my PhD). To analyse the results of those experiments I need to know data analysis and statistical techniques – that’s done on a computer so I need to have good computer skills. For modelling, I need computer programming skills (also learned during my PhD and during my engineering degree).
In general, you also need to be a good communicator, to be analytical and patient (things don’t always go the way you want!) and to have good problem solving skills.
Describe a typical day?
I spend about half my time in the lab, and half my time in front of a computer.
In the lab I look after cells (we grow them in plastic dishes), or perform experiments with a microscope, which means running in and out of a dark room to check on the cells!
A day on the computer involves writing computer code to model some of the systems we are investigating in the lab. I also send emails, prepare manuscripts, and analyze data in Microsoft Excel.
I love the feeling of solving puzzles – I sometimes feel like I’m trying to put together a big jigsaw, but I don’t have a picture to guide me, and sometimes I’m not even sure of the shape of the pieces! But I love the idea that I’m trying to figure something out that possibly nobody else has ever known, and that is so exciting.
What are the main challenges?
Sometimes the little things you have to get done before you get to do the bigger stuff can be quite boring! Also it sometimes feels really difficult – progress can be slow and, even though you work in a team, you can feel alone in your research. That is why a good supervisor, good mentors, and good friends are all really important, to help you through those tougher times.
But for me, nothing worth doing is ever easy, and sometimes the very fact that it is difficult even excites me! It is really important to realize that there will be ups and downs, as with anything in life.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
My Dad has probably been the biggest influence on my love of science.
He is always curious about the way things work, and why things are the way they are. I think I’ve got a lot of those characteristics now.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
I think with most jobs you have to try really hard to hang onto the lifestyle you want for yourself.
In research, some people think that you have to work long hours to progress in your career, but what is more important to me is to have a good work-life balance. I am willing to work long hours when needed (before deadlines for example), but I want to keep as many evenings and weekends free to live my life outside of work.
In terms of security, post-doc work is generally on a contract basis – a contract can be for 3 months or it could be for 3 years. That is one of the current issues with this type of work.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
For the Leaving Cert I studied Biology, Accounting and Technical Drawing – a very varied set of subjects! I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I wanted to keep my options open! They all helped me in some way, but did not particularly guide me towards what I’m doing now.
That was more a case of realizing over the years what excited me and what I was really interested in.
What is your education to date?
I went to secondary school in Athlone (Our Lady’s Bower). I went to college in UCD and studied Electronic Engineering – I loved that!
After working as an engineer for a few years (and travelling for a year), I decided I wanted to work in biomedical research and went back to college to do a Masters in NUI Galway, and then went on to do my PhD with the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI).
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Because I changed my career path from engineering to biomedical research, my Masters was really important. It was a yearlong taught Masters, where people from the physical sciences (such as engineering) studied more biological subjects, such as anatomy and molecular biology.
But for someone with a degree in the biological sciences this type of course might not be necessary.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
For a career in scientific research, I think that one of the most important qualities to have is curiosity; a desire to learn, to understand things; to understand how and why they work that way, and a desire to figure things out.
You also need to be self-motivated; although you’re in a team, you only get out of this job as much as you put in. I also think that being organized helps hugely!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Work experience in a scientific lab would obviously be the most direct way to get experience of this kind of career, but there are plenty of other places that would also be useful.
Work in a hospital or a pharmacy can give you an idea of the medical side of things (ultimately I’m trying to find better ways to diagnose and treat medical conditions).
Work in a pharmaceutical company would let you see the other side of this coin – where the drugs that are developed in a lab are tested and produced.
Finally, anything that provides work experience with computers would also be useful – working with Microsoft Excel or any kind of computer programming can be invaluable for a career in research.