Eleanor Williams

Post Doctoral Research Assistant and Public Engagement Officer, Structural Genomics Consortium

Ellie has always been interested in science, finding out new things and discovering how things worked. As a child she was interested in a whole range of things – space, dinosaurs, weather, medicine – and that love of finding things out stuck with her growing up. As she got older she specialised more but that love of discovery stuck. She found that she  really enjoyed the practical side of science, messing around in a lab and getting stuck into an experiment, troubleshooting and finally getting it to work.

One of the reasons ELlie went into Biochemistry (as opposed to Astrophysics, which was tempting when she was about 17) was wanting to try and make a difference to people. She had a friend with a particular medical condition and there was research being done that might one day be able to help him or people in his situation. She thought that getting into a field where she could potentially help develop new treatments or increase understanding of disease would be very rewarding.  Even though it might not help her friend specifically, it might help someone else further down the line.

Q: What do you like best about your career.

EW: With the research that I do, I love the fact that I feel I’m contributing towards something bigger and that I can see where it’s going. The work I do is looking into a particular condition, FOP, and given the rarity of the disease (1 in 2 million) it’s fairly easy to see a niche for the research that I and my co-workers are doing and that is very rewarding. The other part of my job is coordinating the public engagement efforts of my department. I really like the chance to develop the ways we reach out to the public and seeing those put into action. There’s nothing quite like seeing the excitement on a school kid’s face as they learn something cool about science for the first time or getting into a discussion with someone at a science festival and leaving the conversation with the impression that they’ve really understand what you were saying.

Q: Can you describe a typical day at work?

EW: One of the things I love about my job is that I don’t really have a ‘typical’ day. My work tends to go through phases where sometimes I’m in the lab every day and sometimes I’ll be at my computer for long stretches at a time. If I am in the lab then my morning might start with a protein purification, thaw the cells, lyse the cells, spin down the lysate and start the process of extracting the protein through a number of different affinity techniques. Then checking the protein purity by running a gel. It might take me two or three days to purify a protein and then I might spend the remainder of the week running my experiments with it. If I’m spending time at my desk then I may be trying to analyse some data, or writing up my results in preparation for a paper or catching up on recent publications. If I’ve got my public engagement hat on then a typical day may involve developing new resources to take into schools or to science festivals and dealing with the admin tasks that come with that.

Every now and then however I’ll get a really unusual day which shakes things up and keeps thing interesting. Going to public engagement events for example is often a lot of fun and gives me a chance to test out our activities and resources on a real live audience. Equally sometimes I get the chance to go to the Diamond Light Source in Didcot to use the synchrotron facilities there for my research – either during the day or getting the night shift  – but at least if you have to stay until 4am you get to see the wild bunnies on the campus as you leave.

What advice would you give to other women considering a career in science?

EW: Firstly, Science is a massive field of opportunities, find something you’re interested in and try it out – it might not be what you originally thought you’d be keen on (I was convinced aged 18 that genetics was going to be my focus… now I’m a structural biologist with a bit of public engagement thrown in!) but if you find something you enjoy then it’s worth it – so don’t limit yourself in what you think you can do. Secondly I think in science careers it can be easy to lose sight of work/life balance. Science research is hard work and sometimes does require long hours to get the job done but it’s also possible to do the work and not spend every waking moment in the lab, otherwise you’ll end up working so hard you burn out.