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Off-piste PhD: pharmacists have the skill set to step out of their comfort zones

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My heart was set on a career in the pharmaceutical industry during the early stages of my degree, and learning about pharmaceutics and drug delivery only made me want it more. My research experience was based in pharmaceutics — from my undergraduate research project, to working in formulation sciences in the pharmaceutical industry — and I absolutely loved it! I wanted to do a PhD…pharmaceutics, right? A no-brainer, surely.

It would have been simple, and even wise, to have stuck to what I knew with a pharmaceutics PhD, so why the U-turn?

I realised that all of my experience in drug development was based in the latter stage: packaging an active pharmaceutical ingredient into a suitable dosage form. Despite really enjoying this part of the process, I wondered what it would be like to be involved in the early development of a compound: identifying a need, a target and an effector molecule. The experiences and skills gained from translational research — and applying basic science to tackle problems — would make me a more rounded and effective researcher, I thought.

After considering offers, I chose my current project, which looks at targeting mitochondrial dysfunction in disease, at the University of Cambridge. Stepping out from my comfort zone into something completely new was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. I won’t lie; the first few months were difficult. Getting up to speed with literature is never going to be the most exciting thing (especially when you are a complete amateur in the subject area). Couple that with your first few experiments failing, and you end up with a bit of a disaster. But my research experience prepared me for the lack of immediate success and the bumpy road ahead. Perseverance is really important, as well as speaking to the right people and clocking up the hours in the lab. Things started to pick up.

My development from the beginning of the PhD until now has been incredible. The broad nature of my pharmacy degree helped me to pick up knowledge quickly, and there are often links to subjects I’ve covered in the past. It’s always nice to spot things you remember revising and putting them into practice — like western blots or molecular cloning.

And as a pharmacist, I have also contributed a great deal to my peers’ development. Always considering the patient, I often found myself with different thoughts to some of my peers, but this fuelled scientific discussion, and regardless of our differences, the aim is the same: to improve human health.

Pharmacists may believe that they don’t have the necessary skills to carry out basic research — this is how I felt, despite applying. But this isn’t true. A thirst to uncover the unknown can make up for any initial shortfall — the PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. The science involved in the early stage of research is extraordinary and, only when you experience this area first hand can you understand the elegance with which the modern scientific community is shaping the future of healthcare.

The left-field option has given me a fantastic experience, and I have developed way beyond where I would be if I had stayed in my comfort zone. It may have been a foolish risk, but it was the perfect opportunity to develop and gain skills in areas that I may not have had the opportunity to.

Solving problems in complex biological systems develops your critical and logical thinking, including many other transferable skills. I’m not here to convince anyone to take the same direction if they don’t want to, only to highlight that there are many interesting areas open to pharmacists.

Pharmacists have the perfect skill set to tackle basic translational research — a viable option for those looking to experience the early development of medicines.

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