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Q&A with a blood researcher: What he does, how to get in.
In this Q&A series we are interviewing people that have successfully bridged that gap between a science degree and industry.

First up, Meet Ben Wood, BSc Med Biotech 2015 and Current PhD student at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He works at Red Cross Australia in the competitive world of research.

You are a research assistant at Red Cross Australia. What are you doing, day to day?

Basically day to day you are in the lab; you are on the ground doing a lot of the experiments and gathering data which you then give to your supervisor (the research fellow). All of the work you are doing contributes to research projects and research studies or publications.

What kind of data are you collecting? What is an example of something that you’d be looking for? When someone delivers blood, are you the person testing it?

Every time someone delivers blood they will do viral testing on the donation, but that’s not me specifically; I work more in research and development. We are a bit more ‘future looking,’ I guess. So, we look at the new technologies that are coming along. For example, we are currently looking at how we can store blood for longer so that we can make the best out of each donation. Another example, we are looking at is how we can use platelets to help people recover from burns. There’s a whole range of projects.

Are you the person hypostasising about research tasks, or does someone above you hand down a task?We’ve got a manager above us who elects the project and briefs us on how to test. From this point we are collecting, sorting and challenging data sets. We are trying either prove or disprove the project goal.

How does someone get their foot in the door in a role like this?

It’s quite tricky if you’re just starting off. It’s like the old joke is that you “need three years of experience in a technique that’s only existed for one” to get this job.

In my experience, I think it’s a lot easier if you have some sort of lab experience while you are at university. There are lots of opportunities around while you are studying; take them up and then when you graduate you can reply on more than the qualification alone. There are always internships or research projects that you can participate in – you need to be proactive in getting practical skills that would be recognised by people working in a lab on your resume. Also, working in a lab will open doors to other jobs, this is an industry that kind of hires from within. Network and connections are key.

Would you say that a PhD is essential to getting noticed?

Yes, that’s pretty much what I encountered. When I did my Bachelor, I didn’t work in science at all. I was fixing computers for two years, completely not using my skillset. So I went back and did my Masters because I found that it was almost a pre requisite to have lab experience when I was looking for a job.

I guess another piece of advice I’d give to people is that there’s been some really good presentations offered via UTS; where they had folks from different industries – from academia or from corporate, who studied a science degree and now work in industry. They will come back and speak about their journey and offer advice. I leveraged those opportunities quite a bit, and they are invaluable.

I remember one of the speakers said that less than 5% of graduates will end up in academia. So, if you are a science student it’s really your best way to learn about where science skills can take you.

There’s a lot of opportunities out there in industry for people with science degrees; where you can apply problem solving, investigation, data analysis – presentation, and they’re useful skills that you can apply elsewhere. You just have to adapt.

Why did you decide to attend UTS for your postgraduate degree. I know you did your undergraduate at USYD.

I went to an Open Information Session at UTS and they were introducing a program where you could do one year of research as part of your Masters – and it was basically equivalent to the Honours year. That really appealed to me and seemed like the pathway to getting into a research. I wanted to develop those skills and hopefully the connections which would then facilitate a career in science. That’s what really drew me.

Was it easy to network within the course?

To be honest, I think it took me about six months to really understand the value of the network. I still wasn’t quite on the ball. Once I realised that the course would really be what I made of it, I really stepped up. I remember once day when this man came in from AstraZeneca, one of the big pharmaceutical companies, to talk about the importance of developing connections so that you can move into adjacent industries.

It really left an impression on me and I thought, ‘ok – you have this huge opportunity to grow your network that will open doors, leverage it.”

Do you still have those opportunities now that you are a PhD student?

Yes, in the course there’s been a big emphasis on career development. My supervisor sat down with me and said you know, it doesn’t have to be academia; but if it is, here are the steps to get there.

So did you ever consider academia? Or you always thought research was your end point?

I think I just wanted to be in the lab, to be honest; and have that variety to my work day. There’s quite a lot of other things which come along with academia which didn’t quite appeal to me too much; marking lots of tests and assignments…

Ok, so talk me through your Masters.

It was two years. I know they offer other courses which are shorter, maybe one and a half years. But in my experience, the first year is a mix of coursework that is similar to your third year in Undergraduate and also miniature research projects. Then in your second year you will find a supervisor, apply for a position and get a role doing your own research at the university or in industry. I was lucky enough to get one with Australian Red Cross Lifeblood – UTS have got a lot external connections for you to explore.

In that program I met Dr. Matt Padula and I was interested in what he did. He was running a joint program with Dr. Lacey Johnson, who teaches at UTS while being a research fellow at Australian Red Cross Lifeblood. I went to an information session that they were running and decided I wanted to try work more closely with their project.

What is their project?

To put it really simply, you could rename the project title to read: “Put platelets in the fridge, hopefully make them last longer.”

And does that work?

Some ways, yes.

So, at the moment, if you go to donate ‘blood’, you can donate a few things. You can donate blood where they just put a needle in your arm and they take everything. And then you can also donate platelets, which is what I work on. And the main limitation with platelets is that when you get them they only last five days. They have five days of shelf life because you’ve got the risk of bacteria basically growing in there. So, five days is the limit. And then after that, we have to get rid of them because it’s too risky to transfuse.

So what some enterprising individual found was that if you place things in the fridge, just like your milk, bacteria is much less likely to grow. So what they did, they put platelets in the fridge and they thought, hey, this might work to prevent bacterial proliferation. But because we are putting these products into people, it’s not just that simple.

As part of the evaluation of any new storage technique, you got to look at the platelets and see what you’re actually doing to them. So, at a molecular level, what are the changes which are occurring in our products, and would this be detrimental to someone if we transfused them? So this project was looking at a lot of how platelets change when you put them in the fridge, and seeing if this would affect how they function; how good they are at stopping bleeding once they’re transfused.

Fascinating. So, the answer at the end was, in some cases, yes.

Compared to what we normally use, yes. The platelets that we store at room temperature tend to be better at stopping bleeding, at least in the lab. There’s a few clinical trials ongoing at the moment to test this in actual people.

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Interesting. What about blood? Can you store blood in the fridge? Does that elongate it’s shelf life or no?

If you donate whole blood, they separate it out, they basically put it in a big spinning centrifuge, and they’ll take plasma off the top and they’ll store that as one component. They’ll take your platelets and store that as another component, and they’ll take your red cells and they’ll store that as a third component. You can keep red blood cells for about 40 odd days in the fridge. And plasma, you freeze it so you can keep it for years. So it’s really platelets, which are one of the trickiest things to maintain a stock of, just because you currently can’t keep them longer than five days, in Australia.

You have some great publications and awards on your resume, do you think being published helps with employability?

I’m going to stress that I was very lucky in my opportunities. When I did Honours, I did it with Dr. Lacey Johnson, and she had a vacancy at the end of the year which I was able to take.

I think this was one of the things I really benefited from at UTS, was finding good professional mentors; both in Dr. Padula, who introduced me to what research was like, and then Dr. Johnson; who basically supervised me through my Honours year and helped me develop a lot of the skills and professional connections that you need to take yourself forward.

When I worked with Dr. Johnson she put a lot of effort in to make sure that the project I was working on would have an outcome at the end, and in doing so, I would have something that could potentially be published. I had to put in all of the effort and do the hard work to actually make that happen; but the potential was there. So those publications are a result of the environment that I found myself in, as opposed to those publications got me to where I was.

Your first degree was in biochemistry, how did you land in blood work?

It’s funny, I was doing a haematology unit and I knew almost next to nothing about the use of platelets for any blood products. But I found it fascinating; and that’s the thing with science, you need to pick an area that interests you and deep dive into it to find the opportunities. I also saw that Dr. Lacey could really foster and develop my skills. I think this is another piece of advice, ensure the environment for your PhD is right. I think your mentors in the project are probably more important to get right than your project subject.

What is your goal? What does your future look like?

I’d like to get this PhD done and hopefully become a doctor at some point. I am interested in continuing at Australian Red Cross Lifeblood. You are doing research. It’s getting published. The only consideration in picking to work in industry (as opposed to in pure research) is just that all research projects have to align with the goals of the organisation, so it has to contribute to pushing blood transfusion science forwards, basically.

Do you have any final pieces of sage advice or anything you think I’ve missed that would be valuable to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

I think my two biggest take away messages would be, in undergraduate or if you’re doing a Masters, seek out those opportunities where you can either have an internship somewhere in industry, or they offer like semester long research project and that will give you skills, but also connections to people that work in science, which will definitely help you. And references, which will help you get that first job.

And then also, it will give you a taste of what it’s like and you can figure out if you actually want to continue down the road and enrol in an Honours degree or a PhD.

And then my second piece of advice is to do your due diligence if you want to go forward, and find a supervisor who can really assist you along the path to where you want to be, who offers that supportive environment so that you could do the work and then get the benefits from it.

A note from Sam: Do you have any questions about the course? We’d be happy to introduce you to someone from the UTS team who can chat to you about the logistics of a postgraduate course. Email me at samantha@thefootnotes.com.au xx

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