Clare’s crystals

Clare works at the John Innes Centre as a Research scientist. Her work involves solving the 3D structures of proteins which are so important for so many processes within the body. By knowing what a protein looks like, new drugs and antibiotics can be developed. Is this an area you could see yourself working in?


The Big Picture…

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My family is very medical and my father is a doctor so it was always assumed that I would follow in his footsteps, but as I got older I realised that I wanted to do something that I wanted to do so I went into science rather than medicine.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

My Dad and an inspiring biology teacher. I really enjoyed biology at school and finding out about the medical applications of it.

What do you love about your job and what would you change?

I love that every day is different. You can plan your work yourself to keep it varied. One day I might be in the lab doing experiments, using my computer to build structures, fixing robots and lab equipment, or training and helping students to inspire the next generation of scientists. I like not having a fixed routine so that I can do the work that fits with my mood for that day.

In my work I crystallise proteins and so the only thing that I would change is if that could happen a lot quicker that would be great as it can be quite frustrating at times!


What qualifications did you take at school/college?

I took A-levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths.

Did you go to university? Was a degree required for your role?

I went to Liverpool John Moore University to study for a degree in Biochemistry which included a year in industrial training. I then worked for several years in drug testing and came here in 1996 where I decided to do a PhD in protein crystallography part time whilst I worked which took 7 years to complete. Both my degree and PhD are required for my current role.

Are there opportunities for apprentices within your organisation?

Not really, but there are a lot of work experience opportunities here for Year 10, Nuffield scheme, etc. There are so many jobs here so it’s great for students to come in and be able to find out about the breadth of jobs available.


What gives you the most job satisfaction?

The most exciting part is when you obtain crystals for the first time in a new project as they are quite difficult to grow and you never know whether they will take or not.

What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future?

I solve the 3D structures of proteins which are so important for so many processes within the body. If I can learn what a particular protein looks like we can then use that for a whole variety of things, for example by knowing what a protein looks like new drugs and antibiotics can be developed.

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field and how much can this be expected to rise?

The starting salary is approximately £21,000. Depending on promotions this can rise to approx £37,000.

What’s the most unexpected thing about your job?

That this is such a multicultural environment to work in with lots of ages, cultures and races, and we all work collaboratively to get to the bigger picture and one step closer to the answer.


What do your friends and family think about your job?

My son (age 7) thinks his Mum’s job is really cool! I sometimes go into his school to help with science activities as part of the teacher/scientist network. Most of my family are in the medical profession and are proud that I became a doctor via a different route.

Would you say you have a good standard of living/work-life balance?

Yes. I am able to take time off easily when I need to attend to family commitments, e.g. attending my son’s assemblies. Science isn’t a 9-5 job and can involve evening and weekend work. When we collect data at Diamond synchrotron we may have to work around the clock, right through the night!

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I am passionate about salsa and Kizomba dancing!

…and finally…

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I would still like to be here, but having had more publications and solved more protein structures.

 What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist?

That I was knowledgeable about my specific area and that I was good at training and helping others. I hope that people who have worked with me remember that I was enthusiastic and that this inspired them.

If you had a super power, what would it be?

I would like to be able to travel anywhere in the world instantly to avoid jet lag and airport delays! I would also like to have X-ray eyes so that I could tell if the crystals in my work were actually proteins and not just salt crystals without having to wait for them to develop properly.


With thanks to the John Innes Centre and Dee Rawsthorne of the Norwich Bioscience Institutes.