Jon – Postdoctoral researcher in microbiology & structural biology

Have you ever considered a career as a structural biologist? Are you interested in how things work? Would you like to work in a lab with opportunities for overseas travel? If you answered yes to the questions above then keep reading, this could be the job for you…

What attracted you to this job?

I have always been interested in how things work, from machines to cells and was drawn to biology at school. At university I studied how proteins, which are biological machines, work and was able to continue to a PhD and now work as a researcher at Newcastle University.

What does your typical day involve?

There’s no such thing as a typical day in a research laboratory. Some days I am in the laboratory growing bacteria and purifying the proteins inside them to see how they work. Other days I spend writing papers, or presenting my work at conferences. Some of the most exciting days are when I travel to the Diamond Light Source to use their X-ray beams to look at the atomic structures of the proteins I work on. This allows us to see exactly how the proteins in cells can carry out their jobs in the cell.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

The big thing is finding out new things about how life works. Being the first person in the world to see what a particular protein looks like is really satisfying, and then being able to work out how it works and what that means for the bacteria or cell it comes from.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

I know a lot of scientists, so they think it is a good job to have and understand what I do quite well. With my family I put my work into a familiar setting, but they realize how important looking at the fundamental processes of life is in understanding how to make better vaccines, or antibiotics.

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

The hours can be long, but science isn’t a 9-5 job. If you have an experiment running sometimes you can be in the laboratory for 24 hours at a time. But the opportunities for travel and meeting new people are great. I have travelled to Texas, California, Italy, France and Australia while working in science and have met many people in laboratories there.

How did you get to where you are today?

I went straight from school to university to study biochemistry. I did a laboratory project in the summer vacation before my third year, which really put me on a course to doing laboratory science. After my undergraduate degree I did a PhD and went into a research lab after that.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Keep an open mind as to what you are interested in, read around your subject and surround yourself with people who aren’t just in your field. I went to university wanting to study genetics, but ended up with a biochemistry degree and now I work as a structural biologist studying bacteria. There are always opportunities to step sideways into a related field as long as you keep learning new things and keep being excited by science.

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?

Research in science is reasonably well paid. Post-doctoral research contracts are fixed term though, which means you have to be very career focused and plan your next step well in advance. The travel and ability to direct your own work are big compensations themselves though.

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

It is sometimes hard to separate out work from play, I read science fiction and like to bake and brew beer. Scientists are a pretty sociable bunch, so a lot of out of office time is spent catching up with friends from other laboratories, or travelling to visit them.

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

Of course, when you are starting in a new lab and you don’t know how things work there are always embarrassing moments. These usually come when you cause a piece of very expensive equipment to malfunction or break.