Inspirational Women: Rebecca Barlow

Rebecca Barlow, winner of The AstraZeneca Award for the Best Pharmacology Student 2010 and overall Science, Engineering & Technology Student of the Year 2010, answers questions about why and how she became a pharmacologist. Rebecca was interviewed by the WiP student representative Liang Yew-Booth.

Why did you choose to study Pharmacology at university?
I was always interested in medicine and human biology but knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. When I was 15 an alumnus from my school gave a talk at a careers evening on “careers allied to medicine”. She’d done pharmacology and I decided that it was perfect for me. I wanted to learn about disease and its treatment but work behind the scenes, as it were!         

What did your undergraduate dissertation project involve? Why did you choose to do that particular project?
By my final year I’d developed a keen interest in psychopharmacology and knew I wanted to pursue a PhD involving pre-clinical work. As such, I chose a project that was in the field of psychopharmacology but involved molecular techniques that I wasn’t so confident in and wanted more experience of.
My project was “Muscarinic Acetylcholine Receptor Regulation of the GABA-A Receptor Alpha4 Subunit Gene in SH-SY5Y Cells” and involved a lot of tissue culture work and transfections.

How did you become SET student of the year 2010?
I was selected to be put forward for the “Best Pharmacology Student” award by my department at the University of Leeds. I had to write at short synopsis of my project, in order to be considered to be shortlisted. I was shortlisted with 2 other candidates and had to travel to London where I had an interview at the BPS with a panel of judges. I presented my project to them and then answered questions they had about it, and also about my interests and future plans.

What are you doing now you’ve finished your undergraduate degree?
I’ve just started a PhD at the University of Cambridge, in their Experimental Psychology Department.

What was it that made you decide to do a PhD and would you recommend doing a lab or vacation project to get some experience?
When finishing my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t sure (and am still not completely!) if I wanted to move into academic research or into the industrial sector. I felt that doing a PhD would help gain an insight into the world of academia whilst also giving me a qualification that would greatly help should I choose to go into industry.
I think a summer project is an excellent idea. I didn’t undertake one myself, but I was very lucky in gaining a summer job as a laboratory technician for an Open University Summer School. I did this job every year as an undergrad and gained a lot of lab experience, as well as lot of confidence!

Do you have any advice for someone considering a degree in Pharmacology?
I really enjoyed my time studying pharmacology; it’s such a vast area that there is something to interest anyone and there are always exciting new developments. Plus, it’s nice to show off to friends and family when you know what the doctors are talking about on TV in Casualty and House! I think if you’re interested in human biology and chemistry at A-level and want to know a bit more about disease and how their drug treatments work – it’s the degree for you.

What do you hope to be doing in 10 year’s time?
In 10 years’ time I hope to still be in academic research, perhaps completing a post doc in America or another far flung country!

Lastly, have you been inspired by a scientist (male or female) to make a career in Pharmacology?
Both my personal tutor and my dissertation supervisor at the University of Leeds work in the psychopharmacology area, and I think that being around those who were passionate and committed to their subject made me choose this as my area of interest.