|11 Apr 2018
|Amazing Alumni: Science
Having completed her PhD in Bioinformatics in 2015 Hannah now works as a Bioinformatician, working in Discovery Research for a pharmaceutical company. Discovery Research focuses on proposing new candidate treatments to stop or reverse the effect of a disease, sitting at the beginning of a long journey to discover and bring a drug to market. Hannah says, ‘We try to better understand a disease, generating new insights into possible drivers of the disease which could be novel targets for treatment. And after a target has been identified dedicated teams attempt to design a chemical compound or a biological molecule which will bind to it. They try to maximise the binding between the drug and the target, which will produce the therapeutic effect, and minimise binding between the drug and anything else, which can cause potential side effects.
In my specific role I work on the analysis of biological data. I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD in statistics and systems biology, and I use a lot of these disciplines as well as computer science, biology and chemistry. My role is to analyse data and generate novel insights into ‘mechanism (the molecular mechanisms underlying diseases). The textbook definition of a disease is often driven by the symptoms which patients experience but if you go beneath the surface, these symptoms are the end result of a molecular process gone wrong. It is only by understanding this process that we can understand how the disease can be treated and it is my job to use data to generate a picture of this mechanism.
What I love about my job is that patients are the primary motivation for what we do. I’ve had other jobs in research and, while it’s always been academically stimulating, it can often be hard to feel the impact of what I do. Research by its very nature is working on new ideas and trying to uncover new knowledge, but this means much of what we do is disconnected from the end result, and much of what we do will ultimately fail. But working in medical research places your work in the middle of a cycle which uses patients’ experiences as the guiding principle behind generating new scientific solutions which then go on to treat those patients. We regularly interact with patients to learn about their experiences and understand ways we can use emerging science to tackle their problems.
Bioinformatics research is currently an area of intense growth. It’s been less than 20 years since the first human genome was sequenced and during that time there has been an explosion of genetic data being generated. There isn’t a single route to get into a career in scientific research. I took perhaps the most typical route by beginning my career at university with a PhD. But several of my colleagues joined the company as junior scientists after a Masters and gained on-the-job training as they rose within the company. Whatever route you chose, the most important skills for research are an unassailable curiosity for the world around you and a passion, not for being right, but for finding the truth.
During my time at St James I learnt to be truly curious and questioning about the nature of the world. I learnt not to accept things blindly at face value and to continually question any assumptions I held. I benefited hugely from some incredible teachers who ignited a passion for academic curiosity early on.
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