Scientist Stories: Meet Laura Benson
In May 2021, the Institute launched a new video series called Scientist Stories where we highlight the scientists behind our world-leading research. In this series, we discover more about what they do and how they got to where they are now. In this latest addition, we chat to Laura Benson, a Research Assistant in the Reik lab, about her career path, getting involved with public engagement and some fantastic career advice for students. Watch the video or read the profile below.
Tell us about the background of the research you do at the Babraham Institute:
In the Reik lab, we focus on epigenetics, which just means ‘on top of genetics’. Most people will know the double helix of a DNA strand, and this can actually be changed with little tags that just sit on top of the DNA. There are two metres of DNA in each of our cells, and all that DNA is packed into the nucleus by tightly wrapping around these proteins called histones, which can also have these little tags. So, both types of tags can change gene expression by making the DNA more accessible or closed off, which turns genes on or off. That is what we focus on and we look at early development.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Pre-COVID, a typical day for me would be going into the lab, checking emails and if I had meetings. I would then go and check the lab to see if there were general things like gloves and pipette tips that people may need for the day. If they’re not, I’ll go and do a stores run and get all the equipment in so research can continue. Once that is done, I will focus on my work. I get to work with lots of different people, and when I’m not collaborating within our lab or other labs, I get to work on my own research working on single cell sequencing.
What do you find particularly inspiring about your research area?
Since I was young, I’ve always found genetics interesting. I also have an identical twin so it has always been something that is brought up. I’ve always found genetics interesting because it is like the backbone of most biological science, so I decided that is what I wanted to be. The future seems like it is going to involve genetic and epigenetic therapies and things, so it is a really interesting upcoming field.
What are the real world implications of your research?
Many of the things our group focuses on is in the very early development stages of an embryo. This could be diseases, and working with that early stage in development, we can find out what is causing it, and possibly in the very, very far future find a therapy that can fix it. You need the very basics of the research to tell you what is going on and why it is happening before you can move on and fix the problem.
How did you find your job and gain the skills to do the job?
Actually, I did not have 90% of the skills required for this job. I saw a tweet that said the group were getting a grant. I’ve always enjoyed epigenetics and this job was in the area I wanted to move to, which is Cambridge. I found that they had a lab position open and it required lab management skills, previous work with mice and early development training. I had none of those. I had worked generally with genetics and had the theory of the research that we are doing, but not a lot of practical. So, it was sort of on a whim, I applied and I got the job, which was amazing. So make sure you apply even if you don’t fully check all of the list.
Since then, I have had lots of opportunity to develop. I came in with almost zero skills from the list they want. Now I have come out with them and more, as I get to work with everybody on different projects. I get to pick up all the skills that they might need to use in their projects, as well as learning new methods that are coming out and helping develop things. I get a very broad range of training. I also have lab management skills. I am very interested in that side of it now, which is interesting because I never thought I would be anything but a lab body. I am so much more prepared for any job that I would want to go into in the future, and definitely going to apply to jobs where I don’t fit the whole checklist because apparently it can work out. Being a lab assistant or even a lab technician, you learn a lot of skills, and you work with a lot of people, so your people skills definitely improve too.
What is your background and how did you get to where you are today?
I did general GCSEs and I did A Levels in science. Then, I went to the University of Portsmouth, which was a great university, and I studied biological sciences in my first year. I found that I didn’t enjoy some of the subjects the course was teaching, so instead I transferred in my second year to biochemistry. It was under the same umbrella as biological sciences, but it focused more on things like genetics and epigenetics, which I found more engaging. I went on to do my Masters in biological research in the biophysics department and focused again on epigenetics and genetics of a frog embryo.
What if you change your mind about your subject or career choices?
I found that every step of the way, especially in secondary school and A Levels, there is very much a stigma on you choose now what you want to do for the next while. It’s as simple as in that first year, you don’t like it, maybe university is not for you. You need to know it is not the end of the world. It doesn’t stop your career. There are other paths and that is fine.
There is a lot of pressure to choose early and commit, but life isn’t like that. You don’t need to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, you just need to know what you want to do next.
What are your other interests outside of science?
Actually, I really like being involved in public engagement of science as you can probably tell by this interview. I enjoy engaging the public in all different manners. I have done Pint of Science. I have done open days and things like that. I have found that people do want to know about science, they are just a bit nervous to ask, and when you sit down and just have a conversation, it is much easier.
I’ve been involved in a number of public engagement projects alongside my work at the Institute. We have actually developed two different epigenetics escape rooms. Originally, we were going to do an in person escape room at the Cambridge Science Festival. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this couldn’t go forward as planned, but hopefully it will in later years. We have developed an online version, so if you are interested in epigenetics or genetics, or even science in general, to get a gist of what we do in the lab, come and be a research assistant by doing the online escape room.
What advice would you give to people looking to get into science?
My main advice is that you are never stuck. Everyone says you have to choose what you are going to do next. Do what feels good for you, go and do something you are interested in. If you find that you are not interested in it, you can change. Please know you can change your career as everyone’s career path changes. Just don’t be scared to change.
Image description: Laura Benson