Name: Duncan Casey
Job: senior lecturer in advanced sensor materials at Liverpool John Moores University, and founder of anywhereHPLC Ltd.
I didn’t really set out to become a scientist. The original plan was to become a journalist: at school, I was far better at English than at Chemistry or Physics, and I write like I breathe. Having looked at the numbers, though, I decided I wanted a job after graduation so took a punt on Chemistry. I had a couple of really inspirational teachers at secondary school who took me down that route rather than physics, and I managed to talk myself into an undergraduate degree at Imperial College which started in 2001. I specialised in medicinal chemistry, again with an eye on a future job, and applied to take a year’s internship at a big pharmaceutical company in 2004-5 working on drug design, which was pretty much where I expected to end up.
I hated every second of it. It was like being a battery hen; a very small part of a very large and at times remarkably inefficient machine. This was the peak of the combinatorial chemistry trend, so we (or rather, our robots) were pumping out tens of thousands of speculative and generally useless compounds that we’d never see or hear from again. The gadgets were fantastic and I learned a lot about lab automation, but it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I signed up.
I decided it wasn’t for me, so went back to Imperial at the end of 2005 and took up a student position in a group who thought they’d discovered something important about how drugs get around your body. I’d get to run a drug discovery pipeline in miniature from start to finish, adapting the structure of known drugs to improve their pharmacological properties based on the outputs of the new theory. I could do all of the bits I’d liked in the pharma job but with oversight over the whole process and maybe even make a useful contribution to the field while doing so.
Inevitably, it didn’t work the way we thought it did. Welcome to research. On the flip side, what we found was sufficiently interesting to be worth chasing, and that project took me all the way from my MSci degree through another masters in research and eventually a Ph.D., which I handed in at the end of 2011. While we hadn’t quite revolutionised medicine in the way we’d set out to, we’d found some pretty interesting interplay between drug structure and cell membranes, and worked out some of the detail about why some drugs succeed while very similar others fail. I’d also developed a taste for instrumentation: if the tool you need doesn’t exist, you just have to build it.
While the science hadn’t delivered exactly what it was supposed to, the group and research environment was fantastic. I was a pilot student in the Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT), at the Institute of Chemical Biology (ICB) at Imperial. It was deliberately multidisciplinary, joyously anarchic, and a tremendously creative place to work. As a student, you were given exactly as much responsibility as you were willing to take on – I was costing out grant proposals and negotiating with suppliers in my first year, and at various points found myself organising conferences, writing newspaper articles and even doing TV interviews to support the institute and EPSRC when the CDT programme was launched nationwide.
To complement the extra responsibility, we were given vast amounts of training in communications, management and commercialisation. Through the ICB I’ve recorded TV and radio broadcasts and written funding proposals, business cases and an advertising campaign, but the stand-out moment was the Dragons’ Den competition they ran in 2010. Teams were given a burst of training and mentoring from the Imperial College Business School, and were then thrown into the deep end to pitch their ideas on-stage in front of a remarkably large audience. The competition was judged by the heads of the research councils and representatives from the board of GE and Imperial Innovations, for a prize of £20,000 development money. My team won on the day with a handheld analytical system for point-of-sampling measurements, which led to the launch of my company, anywhereHPLC Ltd.
Starting a company can be a lot of fun, but it’s also maddeningly frustrating and a very, very steep learning curve for a scientist. Almost everything you’ve learnt about the way to approach a problem or a proposal goes straight out of the window; the workload can be brutal and good ideas often aren’t particularly welcome at the table if the people already sat at it are making money doing things another way. Trying to do so while working a full-time, 60-odd hour a week post-doc is just plain nuts. Lucky no-one told me that before I started, to be honest.
On the plus side, my post-doc position was also in instrumentation so work on one project would often feed into the other. I also had some very understanding supervisors at the ICB, who essentially let me run the company in my 80:20 time. It didn’t hurt the reputation of the Institute or the university to have a successful student spin-off running, and so my colleagues and I would fairly routinely find ourselves whisked away at short notice to stand, blinking owlishly on-stage and shake hands with people at UK and EU events. Nowadays the Dragons’ Den has become a regular fixture: I think the ICB has half a dozen successful spin-offs to choose from, and the university has started to roll the competition out to undergraduates as well.
Post-doccing was fun and again, I was in the right group – the Proxomics project was a collaboration between Imperial and two other universities, involving some 15 academics and 20-30 postgrads and post-docs at any time. It was a large and sometimes dysfunctional family, but some of the tools we produced were astonishing: we’re currently trying to commercialise one system, which lets you perform cell poration so precisely you can write your name in dye or DNA on a single cell. In the end, though, the old problems about post-doc work remain: job security is slim to non-existent, and on a number of occasions I found myself not knowing if I was going to be paid the month after due to some whim of the funding agency. When a lectureship in instrumentation came up vacant, I jumped at it.
Liverpool John Moores (LJMU) took me on with a huge promotion and offices and labs of my own: the only hitch was that this chemist/physicist/cell biologist was now going to have to learn civil engineering. And do so fast: I left Imperial one Friday afternoon in September, moved house over the weekend and was teaching people about concrete on the Monday afternoon.
I survived the process, and I’m now trying to recreate a little of creative, enthusiastic chaos of the ICB at LJMU. I’m on the team putting together the city’s new Sensor City instrumentation hub, when I’ll get a toy shop of my very own to play in. Between then and now, I’ve got a laser lab to build (I’ve just finished the fluidics and prototyping lab), and I’m trying to put them all together in a project to boost solar cell efficiency and provide cheap clean water in the developing world. It’s going to be another busy year…