Lillie Bell

Lillie Bell

Lillie is studying BSc Medical Biochemistry with an industrial placement. During her degree, she has completed a year in industry in the High Throughput Screening department at AstraZeneca. She was also the winner of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) Student Poster Competition, being able to present her research at the SLAS Europe 2021 Digital Conference and Exhibition. In her first year, she received a Laidlaw Scholarship to carry out research that is independent of her degree. Listen to Lillie talking about her experience as a student in the Faculty of Biological Sciences and on her placement year at AstraZeneca on New Matter Podcast.

Working for a global pharmaceutical company

Lillie has worked in a lab-based role, focusing on biochemical, biophysical and cell culture elements at AstraZeneca. 

What was your job role and what did you do in your role?

As part of being an undergraduate placement student in AstraZeneca, we are tasked with working as part of a team to design and deliver high throughput screens to provide chemical equity against disease-relevant proteins.

What are three of the main projects you worked on while on placement? What was your role on that project? What did you learn from the experience?

Throughout my placement, I have been focused on designing assays to deconvolute the outcome of a high throughput screen looking for small molecule degraders of oncology targets. The first 6-8 months of my project, therefore, involved design, assay optimisation, and proof-of-concept work to confirm that it was possible to screen for and subsequently characterise small-molecule degraders. The rest of my placement year has then been spent applying this proof of principle to an intractable oncology target to hopefully yield some interesting chemistry against this protein.

This experience has been incredibly valuable; I have had lots of problem-solving opportunities, chances to try new things and to voice my opinions about various aspects of the scientific process, as well as suggest further directions we could try to achieve our aim. As well as a broader scientific understanding, I’ve felt that I’ve gained a lot of resilience, determination and confidence when it comes to implementing new ideas and knowing that it’s okay when it doesn’t work out. 

How did the placement improve your communication, analytical and data analysis skills?

I think that I was able to improve in all of these areas during my placement. Presenting scientific data, asking questions, and giving my opinions (all of which I have always found very daunting!) are a vital part of everyday working here, and I’ve found that in such a short space of time, my communication skills have improved and I’ve been constantly pushed to challenge myself. Both analytical and data analysis skills have been incredibly important in my project, and I’ve gained a lot of experience in interpreting results when testing out a new assay to understand what results a degrader molecule would produce during my proof-of-concept studies.

What was the real highlight for you taking a year in the industry?

The lab experience and research environment are invaluable, and I feel I have learnt an unbelievable amount in such a short space of time; however, I’d say the number one highlight has got to be the people I have met in the industry. I know that many of these people will be willing to help me in the future with job opportunities, etc. but more importantly, I know that we will stay in touch and stay friends no matter where we go on to work.

What aspects of your degree were relevant to your placement?

I feel that I have drawn on previous experience in University labs and applied them to my placement, and a lot of the basic concepts surrounding DNA transfections/types of cells/basic pharmacology have been really useful as a starting point which I’ve built on during my Year in Industry.

How did your degree prepare you for your placement?

I think studying in Leeds prepared me well for the workload that is expected on placement, and gave been good organisational and time management skills which I’ve utilised throughout my placement. As well as this, the FBS Placement team offer you so much help and advice in the lead up to your placement that I was able to go into this new environment feeling well prepared and nervous but excited for the experience, without it being overwhelming.

How can you envisage your year in the industry being relevant to your career prospects in the future?

I think this year will have been really beneficial; it has given me a wealth of laboratory experience as well as an inside look into the inner workings of an industrial lab so that I feel more equipped to deal with common challenges and problems that can be encountered during day-to-day lab work. I also feel that I have become more courageous this year, and I am more willing to test out new ideas and experiment with different areas of scientific research without the fear of failure – I hope that this will enable me to use more initiative and be more resilient in my future scientific career.

What are the top three things you can take away from your work placement experience? 

Personal development – organisation, communication, resilience, time-management.

Presentations skills – confidence in speaking in front of crowds clearly and coherently.

Technical skills – understanding different techniques and having a basic laboratory understanding of both process and safety.

Your course

What have been your favourite modules on your course? 

I love the optional and discovery modules offered at Leeds – two of my favourites were Introduction to Pharmacology (Y1) and Introduction to Toxicology (Y2). Both give more of a medicinal drug view of Biochemistry with real-life examples, and I’ve definitely drawn on knowledge gained from both of these to apply to my Year in Industry. As well as this, I especially enjoy the Problem Solving and Data Handling modules which are compulsory on my course -these give us opportunities to work on data analysis and think about real-life applications of our course, and then give us the chance to talk about them in a small group in a more personal setting with a dedicated tutor. I find these modules really beneficial as they allow you to talk to other students on the course about the workload, and gives a more relaxed and social environment to ask questions and test your knowledge.

What have been the top three practical elements of your course? What did you enjoy about them? 

We have lab sessions on our course at least once a week – these usually involve a case study which can last one week, all the way up to a full semester. I really enjoy the lab time, and especially enjoy the longer projects where the first few weeks involve researching the background of the project, then the practical work leads you to draw your conclusions and compiling them into a report.

Careers and employability

What do you plan on doing after you graduate? How has your degree/the faculty helped you with your career ambitions? 

I hope to go on to study for a PhD, possibly in Central Europe (I’m currently looking into opportunities in Germany!). The faculty makes it very easy to see the vast range of options that are available with my degree title, and offer further help and advice about applying for those things, as well as for opportunities outside of the usual scope of your degree. 

I also obtained a Laidlaw Scholarship during my first year at Leeds, and that has helped me massively in developing my independent research, as well as my communication and leadership skills, all of which have been invaluable as tools to help me apply for my Year in Industry and other programs since then. Having research experience in my first two years at Leeds, both through the Laidlaw Scholarship and within University lab time, has given me the opportunity to experience academic research first hand, which I have since been able to compare to industry laboratory experience to determine which I environment I feel I’d like to pursue as my next step after Uni.

Have you used the Faculty’s career service?

Yes! I use the Careers website often and go to as many of their events as I can.

About the University 

Why did you choose the University of Leeds?

I chose to study at Leeds as I wanted a campus university, and when researching about Leeds I saw that teaching for my course was undertaken by many different lecturers who each have research interest and experience in a very specific area, so it was clear that we would be learning from researchers at the forefront of their field.

What are the top three things you have experienced during your time at the University of Leeds?

Learnt to work both independently and as part of a group in an academic lab. Been part of an academic society, experiencing both social and nightlife, and science-related activities, talks and tours. Opportunity to undertake a year in industry.

What are your favourite three things about the city of Leeds? What are the best events you have been to/places you have visited in the city?

I love that Leeds has the feeling of a big city, yet everything is still close together and Headingley is on its doorstep with some lovely cafés/bars. I also really like that, because there are so many universities in Leeds, there is always an event/something going on for students to get involved in. The German Markets and ice skating in Millenium square around Christmas time are a must-do!

Social life and student opportunities

Are you a member of any societies?

I am a member of the Faculty of Biological Sciences Society (FoBSoc) and have been since my first year – I was on the committee in my first year as a First-Year Rep, and in my second year as Sports Secretary.

What social events have you enjoyed the most?

I’ve enjoyed getting to play netball again in a social setting with the FoBSoc sports teams, and have loved both organising and taking part in their pub quizzes/games/movie nights – as well as the infamous Otley Runs.

What do you enjoy about being a student at Leeds?

I enjoy the campus University environment and that everything in the city is so close together. Also, during my Year in Industry applications, I have seen that Leeds FBS students are very highly regarded by employers due to the quality of teaching and the level of content in the courses, which has helped me a great deal when applying for various opportunities beyond the University. The teaching and the course-style at Leeds are also a big part of what makes it so enjoyable to complete a degree here.