An interview with a scientist

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An interview with a scientist

Aarathi Prasad is Science Advisor to the British Council. She’s also written a book and been involved in TV and radio programmes. Here, she tells about 
her career in science.

What study path did you take to get into life science?I studied a BSc in Molecular Genetics at King’s College in London, and then I did my PhD in Cancer Genetics at Imperial College. Then I did a postdoctoral, also in cancer, but I left the lab after that. I love research and I would’ve loved to stay, but I just saw lots of post doc. students not getting permanent jobs, so I thought I’d try and get other experiences. Then if I wanted to go back I could, but at least I had something to fall back on. So I did some television research for a friend who was making a science documentary and needed someone with a science background to help him sift through information very quickly. Then I worked in pharmaceutical marketing, which I didn’t really enjoy so I left quite quickly.

What made you interested in genetics specifically?Our biology A Level exam was heavily genetics and I just love it, and I thought that genetics would be kind of like medicine – it’s just such an exciting area and I wanted to work on cancer particularly. I just loved genetics as a subject for biology, so I just kind of stuck with it.

So how did you get into science communication?I got an opportunity to do parliamentary research for an MP who was on the Science and Technology Select Committee. That was kind of an experience in science policy and also science communication, because we worked with journalists a lot in parliament.

I then worked for the Council of Life Sciences. They mediate between anyone who has to talk about science – teachers, parliamentary journalists etc. - and put them in touch with a scientist to make sure they’re getting the science right. So that was more policy and communication. Then I decided 
to write a book, just because it was something I was interested in. From the book came a BBC Radio 4 documentary and then I did a Channel 4 documentary about genetics, so that’s my policy and communication background.

This job I’m doing now at the British Council is a mixture of both. I’m working on helping collaborations between different countries. At the moment, for example, I’m working on trying to get Korean scientists to try and collaborate with European Union scientists. Also, we’ll start looking at science communication as well, so all the different jobs I’ve done kind of come together.

That’s quite a varied career!It is, and the thing is that’s the point really - that when you do a degree in science, there’s actually loads of options that you have and which your careers advisor might not know. No one told me, I just kind of fell into these things by accident because I was interested in them and because I spoke to people. I think the point is that when you do a life sciences degree, there are lots and lots of career options that you can choose from.

Why did you choose the universities you went to?I chose King’s because it had very good research in genetics, but also it was a multi-disciplinary university. I went on to Imperial afterwards, which was only science, because I chose a PhD and at the time they didn’t have any cancer research - they were expanding the department - so it was a good time to join.

Did you do work experience when you were studying?No I didn’t, but I wish I had. I can’t recommend it enough - if I had my time again I would. You don’t know what you like until you try it. After I left the pharmaceutical company, I did an internship for a short time at the Science Media Centre - they communicate directly with the major national newspapers and news broadcasters - just to see, just to get a feel of what else was out there that I would enjoy doing. In some fields it might be hard to find out how to get a job in it, but if you go and work there for free, for a week or two weeks, you get to know the people and make contacts, and it’s an opportunity to ask questions. But in terms of university, if I had my time again I would do research placements and try and figure out other fields that I might be interested in. I’d really recommend looking around while you’re doing your degree and seeing all the different options you have.

Test tubes

“you need to get a handle on what your skillset is, because I think the kind of job you’re doing needs to be the one that uses your best skills”

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