Kathy Tier

Kathy Tier provides technical support for our clinical trials

We’ve recently written about how to become a cancer researcher, taking the traditional route from a degree in science through to a PhD and ultimately running a research group. But there are many people working to beat cancer who get into science a different way.

Kathy Tier works with Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Southampton, providing technical support for clinical trials of new vaccines to treat cancer. This is the story of her route into research.

I’ve always had a keen interest in science, especially in biology. So when I left school, my teachers assumed I would follow the traditional route into a science or medical career. However, I was offered a good job with the Civil Service and I set off on a career in admin, which encompassed IT, finance and HR.

I had a happy and successful career, but there was always a science ‘itch’ that hadn’t been scratched. When the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy came up, I decided that the time had come for a career change.

So, how do you get into an employment sector full of well qualified and highly skilled individuals, armed with nothing more than a clutch of A levels? You start at the bottom!

I applied for a job as a science technician at the local secondary school, which is an excellent career choice if you want to improve your washing-up skills. There were some advantages though. I was working in science at a level I could easily cope with, constantly being reminded of things that I had forgotten.

Also, it was a part-time job which allowed me the time to work on my qualifications. I discovered the Open University and – like many other people I have met – I ‘just took a short course to see what it was like’ and got completely hooked. Meanwhile, having honed my washing-up skills to the max, I was able to get a senior science technician job which allowed me to continue with my science learning, whilst being able to take on more responsibility and improve my organisational skills in a laboratory setting.

School science provided me with very useful experience, but wasn’t moving me in the right direction, so I looked for something else. I saw an advert for a Tissue Bank Technician placed by the Cancer Sciences Division of the University of Southampton, based at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Centre.

The job required fairly limited laboratory skills and more in the way of organisation and project management. Perfect for me – thank goodness for those transferrable skills! Finally I was doing a job I loved in a research environment, but unfortunately the funding for that post ran out.

Luckily, another opportunity came up. I applied for a post to provide technical support for clinical trials, which suited my organisational skills and allowed me to continue to improve my lab skills. That’s where I am now, working on trials for new cancer vaccines led by Professor Peter Johnson and Professor Christian Ottensmeier.

As a technician, I help with experiments that have been designed by experienced scientists. There’s always the excitement that the next experiment will show a positive result, moving us one step closer to a cancer vaccine solution. And every result is an indication that we are heading in the right direction, so it’s a huge incentive to carry on.

I am racing up a steep learning curve in the job whilst continuing with my degree at the Open University, so who knows what the future holds? If you are reading this and thinking “I wish I was doing something like that”, my advice would be – go for it! If you have determination, you will see opportunities to get you where you want to be, even if the route is a bit twisty.

Kathy Tier