Latest An Interview with a Scientist

An Interview with a Scientist

Aarathi Prasad works at University College London. She is the author of Like A Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex, and In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels through Indian Medicine. She’s worked for the British Council 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 postdoc. 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 are 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.

Credit: Serpentine Galleries

What do you do on a typical day?

Well, the British council is about the exchange of ideas and knowledge from Britain. Generally, most people in other countries know them for teaching English and that’s a big area, and so is education and higher education, but science is something that naturally lends itself to being international because it is international collaborations – that’s how science works – and the language is English, so it’s a very good way. It’s something that a lot of students come to this country to study, so it’s something that we can contribute to other countries in the world. We have a high research standing and we punch way above our weight in terms of publications.

There really isn’t a typical day. I might connect people in Brazil with a food security specialist in Britain from one of the research councils say, or help arrange events – we just arranged one in Holland. Or I might be working with European colleagues on the European Commission, or European research area framework programmes. So it’s a real mixture. I also have my media work, which I still do. I still like writing articles for popular press and I’m thinking of writing another book, also in genetics but in another area. 
It’s all things I enjoy. Also, making some more radio programmes and maybe some TV – that’s my aim.

Why did you move into science communication?

When I started writing my book, no one had written a great deal about it and I thought it was interesting, so I thought it would be nice to write about that, but now I just enjoy it. I’m not in the lab anymore, but I think if you’re in the lab, it’s become more essential than ever to be able to communicate because that’s how you foster collaborations and networks. I think it’s really important to be able to get up and give a talk, even in your PhD, and those are skills that you shouldn’t neglect while you’re at university. In universities, there are media training courses – not all of them, but if you look you can find them, and they’re well worth doing I think.

Some people study science and they like to be in the lab and they don’t want to talk about it, but some research is publicly funded – it’s taxpayers’ money, so some people say if you’re doing research that’s funded publicly, you should be prepared to talk to the public about it. To do that you need to speak in a very simple way that’s not going to scare people and in the right sort of language.

Do you think the UK is the best place to study science?

Well, it depends what area you’re studying in, but I think we have very solid research councils and very excellent universities, a high publication record and great scientists, so in terms of having a good grounding – we’ve got some of the best scientists and lecturers here. Also, the language of science is English, so I think if people come to England it can help a lot with writing publications later, so I think that’s a really important point.

What are the best and worst things about your job?

Well, that’s a difficult question. I love my job! But everyone has bad days and good days, and times when you’re out of your comfort zone. I think you should do a job that stretches you, because if you don’t then you won’t grow. Sometimes when I’ve done a job and I’ve been there for a couple of years, I’ve felt I’ve gained what I can and it became easier. I like to be challenged.

I’m a people person and I love meeting people. I love organising and I love communicating to people, and when I was in the lab I spent a long time in a dark room looking down a microscope and I came out blinking in the light with rings around my eyes! It wasn’t very sociable. Sometimes you might be working in a lab for five years on a paper and it doesn’t get published, and then you could feel that you wasted time.

Everyone has different skills, and even 
people who have a short concentration span – there’s a job for you in science, maybe in journalism in the newspapers, because you jump from subject to subject. I like doing short projects that come to an end and there’s maybe a publication at the end or a difference that’s been made at the end, such as a collaboration that you’ve set up 
or a documentary.

Do you miss working in the lab at all?

I meet scientists who are still working in the lab, and I talk to them all the time, and I do feel a pang like ‘oh I wish I was in the lab again’. When I was in Poland I met a very excellent stem cell scientist, who’s Chinese and works in America and I said: “Oh talking to you makes me want to work in the lab”, and she said: “But you’re working in policy now, so if you didn’t do what you do, our research wouldn’t happen”. So I think you need to try and get a handle on what your skill set is, what you naturally love doing, because I think the kind of job you’re doing needs to be the one that uses your best skills, 
and then you can challenge yourself and improve them.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to get into your field of work?

As I said, I think you don’t know whether you like it until you do it. I think you should find out what you think you might like to do, then do an internship. Email someone, ask ‘Can I come in and shadow you, can I learn about what you do?’ and don’t be afraid to do that, even for one week or two weeks just to get a sense of what’s out there. If you think you want to do something, find out who does it and give them a call and they’ll probably have time for you. If they don’t, ask someone else and just talk to people, be friendly, be outgoing, ask and try it out, that’d be 
my advice.

Is it fairly easy to get work 
experience then?

Different places have different rules, but I think it’s always worth asking. I have a friend who’s interning at the World Health Organisation at the moment – I know a couple of people who have done that. There are some universities that set up programmes to do that, but I’m a great believer in just going out there and finding out yourself. I was at Imperial College for four/five years and I didn’t even know they had a science communications master’s, so sometimes you don’t really know what’s there!

www.aarathiprasad.com