Pharmacology, Industrial Placement

Katy McCarron

Intern at Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, California, USA

I did my industrial placement at Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research in the Bay Area, just outside of San Francisco, California.  As an intern in the antibacterial lead discovery group, my project involved developing an assay which could predict the mode of action of antibacterial drugs using a technique called flow cytometry. I decided to do a year in industry to gain work experience before graduating. I hoped that the extra experience would make me more competitive when applying for graduate positions, and I also hoped that the placement would give me more insight in what I did (or didn’t) want to do after university.

My working days: experiment vs non-experiment days 

A typical day depended on whether I was running experiments or not. If it was experiment day, most of my day would be spent in the lab carrying out my experiments. On non-experiment days (or short breaks in between protocol steps), I’d spend most of the time analysing my data and planning further experiments. There was also the option to attend seminars from guest speakers, which were really useful in keeping up-to-date with progress in scientific research.

My key responsibilities were to develop a flow cytometry assay that could be used to profile antibacterial compounds, which would hopefully help drug discovery efforts. This meant I quickly had to learn about and trained to carry out experiments on a complex piece of equipment. As time progressed, I became self-reliant in running the experiments and was eventually responsible for training other people on how to carry it out.

Work placement abroad - travelling around the US

The major highlight for me was being able to do my industrial placement abroad. It was like getting the benefits of a Study Abroad year and a Placement Year in one! Being able to explore San Francisco on weekends and go to all sorts of events meant that my time out of work was busy and full of adventures. I also had the opportunity to travel throughout the USA, which was amazing – I got the chance to swim with turtles in Hawaii, go hiking in Yosemite National Park, and spend Christmas in New York…. It really was living the dream!

Hands-on research

I really enjoyed learning new scientific techniques and I really appreciated being given the responsibility to carry out my work independently – it was reassuring to know my supervisors trusted me to do a good job! Having said that, it was quite daunting to start with, having to get to grips with a new technique quickly so I could start my carrying out my project was challenging. Although university labs are a great starting point, there’s a huge jump when you start working in scientific labs!

Before and after placement

The pharmacology modules I’d had before going on placement were really useful to give me the base knowledge about antibacterial drugs that I needed to understand the research done in my group and to complete my work. My industrial placement gave me much better insight into the pharmaceutical industry – there are many more aspects to it, and career options, than I had imagined. Hence it has opened my eyes to the diverse and numerous options I have after graduation.

My advice to other students 

Make the most of you’re the experience. If you show you are eager to learn and try new things you’ll get so much more out of it. Also, you don’t end up loving your job as I did, don’t worry – now you know what you don’t want to do in the future, but you’ve still gained so many skills and experiences.

The University was very supportive

The University was very supportive during my placement year. They often checked in on how we were doing, whether we were happy at work or if we were doing okay outside of work – when there were wildfires in California, they checked in to see if we were okay! We also got a visit from our academic supervisor in January, it was nice to still maintain a link with the University and see that they wanted to know that we were being supported and enjoying ourselves.

About studying at Leeds 

The Open Day helped me get a feel for the campus and city

I came to Leeds on the Open Day and really liked the feel of the place. The facilities, particularly the Union, are much better than any others I’ve seen. On the Open Day, I attended some of the lectures held by the faculty and found them really interesting. I also got a chance to talk to some of the lecturers and students and felt like I’d really enjoy the course and being in Leeds.

My work placement in California was the best part of my degree

The main highlight of my time at Leeds has been my industrial placement year – it was such a fantastic opportunity. It gave me greater insight into the careers I could pursue after my degree, helped me improve my research skills and also gave me the opportunity to do a lot of travelling in my time off!

Practical labs really help process what you are learning

The facilities at Leeds have really helped during my time here. The access to labs is great for improving practical skills and it really helps for better understanding the concepts learnt about in lectures. Having weekly labs in the first and second year was so helpful, it really puts what you are learning in lectures in perspective – it makes concepts so much easier to understand. It also is a great experience in developing experimental skills. There are so many libraries at Leeds and they have been a great resource for textbooks and getting access to scientific papers. The libraries also provide a great environment for getting work done, away from the distractions at home.

When I'm not studying... I'm climbing!

I joined the Leeds University Union Mountaineering and Climbing Society. It was a great way to meet like-minded people and even gave me the chance to go on weekends away climbing in Northumberland. I’d recommend making the most of your time in Leeds outside of lectures – the options for joining clubs and trying out new things at University, often fairly inexpensively, is not an opportunity found at many other stages of life

Looking to the future

I think my industrial placement will be extremely beneficial with respects to my career prospects, it’s really useful to apply to jobs already having had research experience. It always gives a great conversation topic for interviews. Making lots of contacts and expanding my network will also hopefully help when I’m looking to apply for jobs in the future. After graduating from Leeds, I’m hoping to pursue a PhD. I came to this decision after completing my placement year in the pharmaceutical industry, which the Employability Team were really supportive in helping with applications for placements; checking CVs, mock interviews etc.