Former Pupils Offer Science Perspectives
Bolton School Science

The second public Bolton School Perspectives lecture of the academic year focused on careers in the scientific sector. Head of Boys’ Division, Nic Ford was assisted by Sixth Form student and keen scientist James Bland in welcoming the Zoom audience and the four speakers, all former pupils.

Andrew Bird (Class of 1989), CEO of Acino, a Swiss-based pharmaceutical company, was first to speak.

Recapping his life in academia, Andrew told how after his A levels at Bolton School he had studied for a BSc in Chemistry at the University of East Anglia from 1989 to 1992 and then a PhD in Chemistry at the University of York. He explained how he began his career as a Research Chemist at GlaxoWellcome in 1996 but quite soon he came to realise that although he enjoyed the industry, his skills and interests were better suited to the commercial world of pharmaceuticals.  Consequently, he determined upon a career change and studied for an MBA in 1999 at the University of Cranfield.  Upon graduation, he joined Janssen-Cilag, where over the next decade he held multiple positions in sales and marketing.  He described how, in 2009, he took a life changing opportunity and moved to Dubai with his family for a Regional Marketing Director position at Pfizer covering the region of Middle East & Africa.  Still based in Dubai today, and several promotions later, he told how he now works for the global pharmaceutical company Acino, where he holds the role of CEO.

Reflecting on his life in science, Andrew said an important lesson he had learnt was to follow your opportunities and to do what makes you happy every day; your career, he emphasised, does not need to be a straight path. Andrew revealed how there are many jobs in the pharmaceutical industry including sales, brand management, new business development, regulatory, supply chain and logistics, legal and compliance, human resources, finance and general management. His three top tips for a good career were to become good at something, to find a mentor and to have no regrets!

The evening’s second speaker was Julia Miskelly née Gorski (Class of 1995).  Considering her career, Julia told how science can open many doors; it is, she said, ever-changing and there is always something new to learn. She said there had never been a dull moment in her working life and, looking back, she felt that all you really need to succeed is a passion to advance and that most other skills can be developed along the way.

Remembering her school days, Julia told how her Form Teacher, Mr Henderson, had told her you won’t always get dealt the cards you want in life but you should always take up a challenge and aim to make the most of things. The former Deputy Head Girl told how, after her A levels, she went into clearing and didn’t get any offers to do her preferred course of Physiotherapy but she made the tough decision to study Biochemistry at Dundee University, which was a long way from Bolton! She recalled how, during her undergraduate years, she worked hard and achieved a First Class Honours degree and received four offers to study for a PhD. She knew it would be difficult but, again, recalling Mr Henderson’s words, she took the decision to take up further study, focussing on basic transcription – the mechanisms of what makes a person, a person and gene regulation.

Upon graduation - and eager now to work in industry – Julia said she was given the opportunity to go to Belfast to work for a new company being set up by Professor Paul Harkin at Queen’s University that would specialise in personalised medicine,. However, no sooner had she arrived there than funding for his business start-up fell through. Once more, she had a hard decision to make as she decided whether to stay and work with him, studying breast cancer, for a funded six months or to go home. Julia described how she stayed there for the next five years and came to learn the importance of research work as she saved and prolonged the lives of those suffering with breast cancer. She explained how, working with a doctor, she was responsible for bringing a chemotherapeutic agent to market which helps women with inherited breast cancers.

Julia told too how, around this time, she also threw herself into public speaking and gained a certificate for teaching in higher education. Then, she said, she knuckled back down to research and spent an insightful 10 weeks in a clinic in Germany which was undertaking work involved with the human genome project. Julia said that she became determined that Queen’s University should have the same kind of facility and, over the course of a year, learnt a whole new set of business skills before pitching her plan to the University Board. Shortly after her presentation in 2014, she received a call which saw her head out to work in industry for the Professor who had originally tempted her over to Belfast – he had finally secured funding for this business!

After a couple of years, Queen’s accepted Julia’s proposal and she returned to manage the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences Genomics Core Technology Unit in 2017. She explained how she led a team of highly skilled technicians providing consultation on the newest technologies and best approaches for researchers and their collaborators on experiment design. Then, she said, Covid hit and she received a call to join a meeting about setting up testing sites and tests, after which her team became heavily involved in supporting testing. Julia explained how she then became part of the COG-UK initiative sequencing all the Covid variants in Northern Ireland and how she had to report to the Public Health Agency about any new variants across the country. She was highlighted in 101 jobs that change the world – UKRI a UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) wide campaign aiming to recognise the diversity of roles which make major contributions to the wider research and innovation ecosystem. 

Julia explained how her work during Covid opened up many doors, including her being recruited to Illumina, a global biotech company, whose innovative sequencing and array technologies are fuelling ground-breaking advancements in life science research, translational and consumer genomics, and molecular diagnostics. She told how, managing the business across Ireland, she uses all of the skills she has picked up along the way. She said that she currently works with research facilities across universities, with biotech companies and the NHS to improve diagnostics across Ireland. Her job, she explained, sees her travel across the globe to work with scientists as well as allows her to work from home.

Julia concluded by saying that every day provides a new challenge for her and that she loves her work. She told the audience that there is an exciting future in science and advised students to embrace challenges and not to worry too much about following a defined career path.

The third speaker of the evening, introduced by Mrs Jepson who compered the evening, was Grace Ball (Class of 2017). Grace told how she studied A levels in Chemistry, Biology and Religious Studies at Bolton School before studying Chemistry with Medicinal Chemistry at the University of York, which included a year abroad in Grenoble, France where she undertook a Masters’ project. Grace spoke about the electives she undertook at university and how a year in the lab in France convinced her that she wanted to do a PhD. She revealed how she had started her doctoral studies in Chemistry at the University of Birmingham in 2021 and how she is currently in her third year, researching Silica Nanoparticles for Drug Delivery. Explaining her studies, Grace said she is working with dentists doing an interdisciplinary project – focusing on nanoparticle application, silica nanoparticles for antimicrobial release and detection of drug release by luminescence. She informed the audience how she got onto her PhD programme and recommended the website Grace said that supervisors generally look for an interest in research and an ability to problem solve and that they essentially want to know why you want to do a particular PhD. It is, she admitted, hard work but rewarding and has seen her having fun too and travelling to London, Glasgow, Bordeaux and Berlin.

The final speaker of the evening was Andrew Markson (Class of 1981) who, like earlier panellists, has moved from research into management. Andrew recalled receiving an enriched and well-rounded education at Bolton School and being inspired to study Chemistry at the University of Reading by a new teacher at the time, Hugo Schenk. In his final undergraduate year, he focused on pharmaceuticals and decided to continue this line of interest into a PhD, which took him another three years to complete. The PhD, he said, taught him how to be a better problem-solver. After its completion, Andrew explained how he took his first steps working in organic chemistry when he took a job with an oil company, Castrol, at their UK global research centre. He told how he worked for 2 years as a researcher on industrial lubricants and cleaners and was then afforded the opportunity to move into the aviation field. He revealed how he has now spent more than 30 years in that sector, relocating to the US in 1997 as a commercial manager for the Castrol Energy group before moving into the AirBP Lubricants business following acquisition by BP Corporation. Here, he said, he spent 14 years managing technology, technical services and business development functions. Following acquisition by Eastman Chemical, he currently manages the Specialty Fluids Technology group supporting both aviation and heat transfer fluid businesses. Having lived in Chicago, he now resides in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Andrew’s advice was to follow your passion and he told how he had enjoyed a rewarding and blessed career and how he had been privileged to work with some great engineers and scientists on major projects such as the space shuttle and Mars rover as well as on commercial airlines. Now, as a Technology Director, he said he enjoys mentoring bright young scientists. He told how there had been unexpected shifts in his career but advised the audience to make the best of it. His top tip for success in science was for students to maintain focus on optimising their communication and presentation skills.  

Miss Zornemann fielded the a wide range of questions including: if you were applying to university now, what would you be looking for in a course, how competitive was it to get onto the year abroad scheme whilst at university, what would be the opportunities and benefits of working in the fields of Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, is there a specific industry or sector that is good for work experience, how valuable are business skills and enterprise when pursuing biochemical research, would it be possible to pursue a career in both biochem research and a pharmaceutical business and how important is it to have a PhD in Science to make good progress?

You can watch Science Perspectives again through this link.

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