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Laura Ajram

Career progression

1. Pharmacology BSc (+ year in industry)

2. PhD

3. Science communication (prospective)

Published: 07 Sep 2017 in Industry

Laura is a final year PhD student at Kings College London.

What is your career pathway to date (including your education)?

I completed a four year BSc in pharmacology at Kings College London with a one year industry research placement – doing in vitro research in the respiratory drug discovery group at GlaxoSmithKline.

I was lucky in my BSc course in that I was able to select my final year modules to reflect my research interests – I chose to specialise in neuropharmacology and went on to start a PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) in ‘The Neuropharmacology of Autism Spectrum Disorders’. This is a CASE funded PhD, which means I receive funding to do research in both an academic research group (at the IoPPN), and a pharmaceutical company – in my case Eli Lilly and Company.

I’m very lucky that I have the opportunity to work in both environments. At Eli Lilly I research an animal model of autism spectrum disorder and perform pre-clinical research, which I then translate into a clinical study with human patients at the Institute of Psychiatry (IOP).

What do you do? What does a typical week look like to you?

I’m currently in the final six months of my PhD so I’m spending a lot of time writing, editing and re-writing my thesis!

Due to the translational nature of my PhD, my week can be very varied - sometimes I spend the day in the lab at Eli Lilly, performing in vivo experiments on a rodent model of autism, and some days I work on my clinical study at the IOP, which involves MRI scanning of autistic patients.

I also chose to become involved in the clinical side of things, and have taken courses which allow me to use the key diagnostic tools we use to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the clinic – some days I spend time helping the psychiatrists in the clinic at the South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, with these diagnostic interviews.

There is always plenty of data analysis to do and I spend time discussing my findings with my supervisor and colleagues to ensure I am analysing and presenting my data in the clearest possible way. Occasionally I present these findings at international conferences, so I spend some time preparing presentations and posters.

What do you like and dislike the most about your current position?

The best part of my job is definitely interacting with patients in my clinical study, and the informative discussions I have with them. Clinical research is very collaborative with lots of people involved to make a study work; in comparison, in vivo research can sometimes involve lots of lone working in the lab, which I don’t enjoy as much. It’s all worth it however when I talk to patients who tell me they think the research we are undertaking is important and will have a positive impact on their lives.

How do you see your career further progressing in the future?

I’ve really enjoyed working in the pharmaceutical industry, both at GSK during my undergradate studies, and currently at Eli Lilly, and would like to continue in industry, but potentially outside of a research capacity.

I enjoy science communication and am currently looking into job opportunities as a medical science liaison. I hope this kind of career path will enable me to stay within science and keep up to date with the latest research, but allow me to pursue my interest in science communication and networking.

What three pieces of advice would you give someone keen on developing a career in your area of work?

Network – Developing a network of people both within, and outside of your organisation is essential.

Join a committee – I sit on the Young Pharmacologist Advisory Group and I chair the Women in Pharmacology Advisory Group at the British Pharmacological Society. In addition to being able to contribute to causes that are very important to me, being a part of these groups has introduced me to some very influential people within and outside of the society and has allowed me to expand my network (see point 1!)

Choose a PhD that you have a passion for – A PhD really is a labour of love, especially when it gets to the end and you’re writing your thesis! Having a passion for your area of research helps to keep your motivation through the harder times when your experiments fail or your paper is rejected. It’s also really important to know that it’s completely normal for things to not go perfectly in your research and that’s fine! Be sure to be kind to yourself and look after your mental health through those trickier times and you’ll get there eventually.

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