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Rachel Forfar

Career progression

1. Biochemistry BSc (+ year in industry)

2. PhD

3. Post-Doc research

4. Drug discovery in charity

Rachel is a senior scientist in the not-for-profit sector.

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

My love of science began from a young age when I had fun in the kitchen completing messy science experiments from the Usborne Book of Science Experiments! I decided that I was interested in a scientific career so I picked separate sciences at GCSE. I continued this path by studying biology, chemistry and maths for A levels, then chose Biochemistry for my undergraduate degree at Warwick University. This included a year in industry in the high throughput screening department at Pfizer, where my project introduced me to pharmacology and G-protein-coupled- receptors (GPCRs). I elected to continue my education by completing a PhD studying GPCRs at Warwick University in a model yeast system. Subsequently, I continued to work with GPCRs but in mammalian cell-based systems at the MRC Reproductive Sciences unit in Edinburgh. My skill set tied up with the job advert at a drug discovery charity looking for someone to work on a panel of GPCR targets. I started as a scientist and have been promoted to senior scientist where my project range of target classes and experience of cell-based assays have grown. Now I am involved in projects looking at antibody drug conjugates to efficiently target cytotoxic drugs in cancer.

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

I am a senior research scientist in the not-for-profit sector, investigating drug discovery targets with unmet medical need. We collaborate with academic researchers who have early-stage drug discovery projects for conditions where there is a clear need for new treatments. As part of the biology division, I work on projects using both small molecule and antibody approaches to develop suitable cell-based assays and determine if these tools are suitable to progress into candidate or lead therapeutics. At this stage we then partner with biotechnology companies, or the pharmaceutical industry to turn these leads into marketed therapeutics.

There is no such thing as a typical week in my role since the demands of the projects are ever changing. However, there are a few things that are required of me every week, such as in vitro culture of cell lines. Depending on the stage of the project there will be some assay development specific to the target biology which progresses into running optimised assays to test the effects of small molecules or antibodies. For example, there is often a need for cell proliferation and cell viability assays to ascertain the cytotoxic effects of the candidate molecules using kinetic readouts with a specialised microscope in the incubator. Downstream signalling assays are then required to observe the cellular effects of the candidates using a range of equipment such as plate readers or western blots. For those proteins being targeted by antibody therapeutics the binding to cells expressing the protein will need to be assessed by flow cytometry, and further characterisation of the antibody internalisation by imaging equipment. Once the assays have been run the data will need to be analysed and experiments written up. To summarise the data, I prepare slides and write reports for project team meetings and for external collaborators.

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

I am strongly motivated by working for a charity where profits are reinvested into research to advance our scientific knowledge and progress the development of new therapeutics. We try to help those with unmet medical needs, e.g., antimicrobials that are often overlooked by the pharmaceutical industry from a profit perspective. I like the challenge of looking at a range of targets and assays, so no day is ever the same and I am constantly learning new techniques and new biology.

My main dislike is not being able to work on more projects and progress the research forward to helping patients more quickly – unfortunately there are only so many hours in the day!

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

I hope to progress to manage more people and projects, gaining more knowledge of the drug discovery process and target biology.

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

Make sure you get some work experience in the relevant area for example, summer placements at your local university department, or apply for a degree with a placement year.

Attend conferences and other events during your degree (most societies offer free or low priced membership to early stage researchers) to meet potential mentors and develop networks – you never know when these contacts may come in useful if you are looking for the next step in your career.

Make sure you do something you love – there can be plenty of low moments when things aren’t working as planned, so you need to be motivated to drive the research forward even during these testing times.

Published: 07 Sep 2017 in Charity

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