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The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers. 

Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.

 Juan Carlos De la Concepcion

I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy. 

Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.

Originally posted by thingsfromthedirt

Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years. 

This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations. 

 rice plant

Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.

These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.

Careers

In early September of this year, 34 final year chemists from all over the United Kingdom descended on GSK Stevenage for a week of all things chemistry, at the 14th Residential Chemistry Training Experience.

A few months prior, an e-flyer had circulated around the Chemistry department at UCL. It advertised the week-long, fully-funded initiative created to give soon-to-be grad chemists insight into the inner workings of the pharma industry. We were told we would also receive help with our soft skills – there was mention of interview prep and help with presentation skills. As someone who doesn’t have an industrial placement year structured into their degree, I was excited to see how different chemistry in academia might be to that in industry, or if there were any differences at all.

 GSK2

A fraction of GSK’s consumer healthcare products. Image: GSK

Two days in labs exposed me to new analytical techniques and gave me an appreciation for how smoothly everything can run. I was assigned a PhD student who supervised me one-on-one – something you’re seldom afforded at university until your masters year. We hoped to synthesise a compound he needed as proof of concept, and we did!

The abundance in resources available and state-of-the-art equipment at every turn highlighted how different an academic PhD might be to an industry one if that’s the route I decided to go down. The week bridged the disconnect I had between what I’d learnt at university and how things are done or appear. 

 The GSK training course

The GSK training course gave me unique insight into the life of a working scientist. Image: Pixabay

For example, I know enzymes can be used to speed up the rate of a biological reaction, but I’d never stopped to think about what they even look like. They come in the form of a sand-like material, if you’re wondering. Before that week, I hadn’t seen a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine – we’d hand in our samples and someone else did the rest. NMR is an analytical technique we employ to characterise samples, double-checking to see we’ve made the right thing. It was great to put all this chemistry into context.

Our evenings were filled with opportunities to meet GSK staff and a networking formal brought in many others from places like SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry. 

 A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance

A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, used by scientists to determine the properties of a molecule. Image: GSK  

During the week, there was a real emphasis on equipping us with the skills and confidence to succeed in whatever we opted to do. That’s exactly how I felt during our day of interview prep. The morning started off with a presentation on the structure of a typical graduate chemistry interview, followed by a comical mock interview before we were set loose with our own interviewer for an hour. Before this, I’d never had someone peer over my shoulder as I drew out mechanisms, and I’d never anticipated that I’d forget some really basic stuff. 

The hour whizzed by and when I was asked how I thought it had gone – terribly – and I was met with feedback that not only left me with more confidence in my own abilities, but an understanding of what a good interview is. It’s definitely OK to forget things – we’re human – but what’s most important is showing how you can get back to the right place using logic when you do forget.

watch gif

Originally posted by howbehindwow

Whether you’re curious about what goes on in companies like GSK, know you definitely want to work in pharma or you’re approaching your final year and just don’t know what you want to do (me), I’d recommend seeking out opportunities like this one. I got to meet people at my own university that I’d never spoken to and had great fun surrounded by others with the same love for organic chemistry.