MadSci Network: Genetics

Re: Could you tell me where I could interview a genetist about his career field

Date: Mon Jan 24 21:59:50 2000
Posted By: Wayde Weston, Clinical Research Scientist, Smith Kline Beecham
Area of science: Genetics
ID: 948155009.Ge

Hi Robbie - Sorry you had so much trouble finding someone to interview!  
I'll answer your questions gladly, but you should know from the start that, 
although I used to work in genetic research, I don't actively work in this 
area any more.  I still work as a scientist, and I did discover a gene - 
hope that's good enough for what you need!  

I did my best to keep my answers short, but this is going to be a pretty 
long post anyway - hope you don't mind!  Anyway, here goes:
1.  What is your job title?  
2.  Who do you work for?
3.  How long have you worked in this position?
I'll answer these three together.  When I worked in genetic research, my job 
title was Research Assistant Professor.  I worked in the Department of 
Pathology, Anatomy, and Cell Biology at Thomas Jefferson University Medical 
School, Philadelphia, PA, and I worked there for 5 years.  for 3 years 
before that I was a postdoctoral fellow in the same department.  In 1997 I 
left that job and became a Clinical Research Scientist for SmithKline 
Beecham, a large pharmaceutical company.

4.  What are your primary responsibilites at your job?
Although these jobs are different in many ways, my primary responsibility 
has always been to do research!  My lab at Jefferson was interested in 
“craniofacial development” - how the head and face are formed in animals and 
humans.  As a clinical scientist for a drug company, I work to develop new 
drugs to treat sick patients.  In both cases, my job has been to help 
identify areas we needed to know about, design experiments that would help 
get information about these areas, and do the experiments (actually, in 
clinical research we get practicing doctors to actually do the experiments 
for us, since they involve treating patients!  But we tell them what the 
experiments are and how to do them).  After the experiments are done, I 
discuss the results with my colleagues and together we decide what they 
mean, and how we can use those results to plan the next experiments.  So the 
responsibilities of both my former and my current job are pretty similar - 
it’s just the way of doing them that’s different.  

5.  What made you interested in the job?
I was always interested in science when I was growing up, and biology was my 
favorite science of all.  I guess I was in high school when I realized that 
I could be a biologist for my job, and after that I never thought about 
anything else.  The funny thing is that I never liked dissecting or anything 
like that in my biology classes - I always hated the smell!  But I was 
fascinated by cells, chromosomes, genes, and biochemistry - the chemical 
reactions that living cells do. That’s what really caught my interest.

6.  What room for promotion or advancement do you have at this job?
I think there is a lot of room for advancement in my current job.  I think 
the opportunities at my previous job (working in the lab) were fewer - 
that’s one of the reasons I left!  But any job in science is very 
competitive, and you have to work very hard and be very good at what you do 
in order to advance.

7.  What training did you need for this job?
After graduating from high school, I took a few years away from school, 
because I knew that if I wanted to be a biologist I would need to spend many 
years in training and I wanted to take a break first!  So I joined the Army 
and worked there as a medical lab specialist - I thought that that would 
give me a taste of what it was like to work in a lab and I could tell if I 
liked it.  I did!  After leaving the Army I spent four years in college, 
then went to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in biology.  After getting my 
Ph.D. I took a position as a “postdoctoral fellow” - this is extra training 
that Ph.D.s can take to help get experience as an independent researcher.  
Almost all biologists take this sort of training - it’s not as common in 
other areas of science.  So counting college, grad school and postdoc, I was 
“in training” for 12 years!  That's a long time, but it takes that long to 
learn to identify problems, think critically, and communicate results, which 
are the most important parts of a scientist's job.  Compared to that, 
learning how to work in the lab was the easy part!  

8.  What do you like about your job?
My favorite thing about doing genetic research in the lab was knowing that 
every day I had the chance to see something that no one on Earth had ever 
seen before.  There is nothing that matches the feeling you get when you see 
something for the first time, and you know it’s your discovery, and for a 
little while you’re the only one in the world who knows that particular 
thing.  Then you get to be the one who tells this secret to the world!  
Usually it’s just a little thing - big discoveries don’t come along all that 
often - but it’s your discovery!
As a clinical scientist, the thing I like most is knowing that the drugs I 
help to develop can help millions of sick people get better and live healthy 
lives.  I also enjoy working as part of a team - the people I work with in 
this job are the best!

9.  What do you dislike about your job?
There were two things I disliked about being a lab researcher at a medical 
school.  First of all,  as I said before, there’s not a huge amount of room 
for advancement, and there’s tremendous competition for the few positions 
there are.  Secondly, you depend a lot on being able to get research grants 
from the government and other organizations that sponsor research, and those 
grants are very difficult to get.  Without them, though, you have no way to 
do your research.  A lot of very good scientists have had to leave the 
laboratory because there were not enough grants to go around.
In my current job, working for a large company, I have rules I have to 
follow to do almost everything in my job.  Sometimes the way I have to do a 
job isn’t the way I’d do it if I could do it the way I thought it was best 
to do.   I guess that’s something I dislike about my job.  But I understand 
that when you are on a team, and working with other teams, it’s important 
that everyone is doing things in the same way.  So although I may not always 
like or agree with some of the rules, I know why we have them!

10. What do you see as your job 15 years from now?
There are a lot of things I could be doing 15 years from now.  I could be 
supervising a group of clinical scientists doing the same sorts of things I 
am doing now, helping to develop a new compound into a useful drug.  I could 
be working in regulatory affairs, keeping up with government regulations on 
developing drugs and making sure the clinical trials teams design their 
experiments to follow these rules.  What I would most like to be doing is 
looking at the different compounds that the scientists in the labs discover 
and helping to decide which ones would make the best drugs for the clinical 
trials teams to work on.

PHEW!  Long answer!  But I hope it helped you out.  I'm glad you enjoy 
science and hope you continue to enjoy it the rest of your life - even if 
you don't pursue it as a career, it's a lot of fun and very rewarding.  It 
will also be important for you as a citizen to have a good understnding of 
science, because so much of our society involves the use of science and 
technology.  Keep trying to get in touch with scientists in your area, and 
learn as much as you can!

Best wishes - Wayde M. Weston, Ph.D.

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