Coffee break… with Rachel Wilson

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Labor Omnia Vincit – the Latin strapline on West Bromwich’s coat of arms – simply means ‘Work Conquers All’. As I inhale the Midland’s air on a crisp winter’s morning, I feel satisfied that this robust slogan could not be more appropriate, given the nature of my latest subject’s work. Uplifted, I enter Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospital, and greet the receptionist with my new Latin mantra. It is returned with a lingering stare of utter bafflement. No matter, it was time for coffee.

Tell me, Rachel, when did you first get an inkling that your future lay in something scientific or public health related?

I have always been interested in science and can remember when I was a child, collecting the Wallace and Gromit science magazines, and finding the information fascinating! I think my real passion for the lab environment came while I was hanging out in the labs at uni.

Where did you go to uni?

I studied at The University of Wolverhampton where I initially completed an HND in Biochemistry; which I enjoyed much more than expected. At this time, I completed a laboratory-based project, during which I looked into analogues of aspirin and their effects on colon cancer. This led to an Honours Degree in Medicinal Biochemistry, enabling me to gain experience in further biochemistry modules, advanced pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences.

What was your first job after graduating?

After completing my degree it was then time to go out into the big wide world and, get a ‘proper job!’, as my mum would say. After just a few weeks of looking, I was extremely lucky and landed myself a fabulous position as a sales representative for BD (Becton Dickinson), in their biosciences department. I was excited, but nervous! During my time in sales, I gained lots of invaluable experience about the industry and a good insight into the field of medical science.

Was immunology something that particularly interested you?

Immunology wasn’t covered much in my degree, so I went back to uni and completed an immunology module. Once working within immunology you soon realise that it features in many, if not all, of the biomedical sciences. If you take HIV for example, everyone thinks of it as a microbiology topic; however, it affects key cells of the immune system, which we can then test for.

When did you nail your current position?

In 2009 I left my sales job to work as a medical laboratory assistant within the immunology department at Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals NHS Trust. I realised then that working in a lab was definitely for me, as I enjoyed the practical side of science. After a year I applied for a Trainee Biomedical Science position within immunology, and got the job. Since then I have been training in the lab as well as attending university to complete top-up modules once a week. In October I completed my portfolio and had it verified. This involved a visit to the lab from an external assessor who takes a look at your portfolio, and is given an in-depth tour of the lab by the trainee (in this case, me) as part of the assessment. It was scary to think that my whole career depended on this one day, but I’m pleased to say I passed with flying colours and am now a state registered Biomedical Scientist.

What does your job involve on a daily basis?

An entry Biomedical Scientist has many roles, including running routine assays, entering patient results and authorising them, screening slides, which are obtained from the indirect immunofluorescence assay under a microscope, and carrying out audit work to help improve our services. The other routine work I carry out includes allergy, coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus testing. Ultimately, we are here to provide clinicians with patient results to help aid them with their clinician decisions.

What is the most interesting part of your job?

Exploring the reasons for routine testing and looking at the specific immunological conditions associated with it. Immunology is fascinating and new developments are discovered every day.

What milestones are you and your colleagues particularly proud of?

My colleagues and I are proud that we passed our last CPA (Clinical Pathology Accreditation) – a formal lab inspection, essentially – with flying colours. I think this reflects how hard we all work within our immunology department and the high standard we have set.

What is the most rewarding aspect of working in pathology?kind of help and support to the community.

Is it important that there is greater public awareness of what you guys are up to?

Definitely, sometimes I feel we are forgotten. How many patients do you think know where and how their blood samples are tested? I bet not many! I think we really need to increase public awareness about what we do. I think most people know about what doctors and nurses do, but what about biomedical scientists?

Do you think you have to have a certain type of character to work in a laboratory environment?

I always assumed that people who work in a laboratory environment would be ‘mad scientists’, with crazy hair and bad dress sense! Since working within the blood science group, however, I have met some amazing characters and great friends. I think the main key skill is to be able to work within a team and focus on patient care and providing results in a timely fashion.

Does working within such a respected institution inspire you?

I am proud to work for the NHS and provide a vital service. The NHS features in all of our lives at some point and is accessible to everyone because it is part of the public sector. Everybody who works within the NHS plays a part in improving the quality of life for patients.

Do you get a kick out of wearing a lab coat?

At first, I did feel slightly important wearing a lab coat, because when I was younger the only people I had seen wearing them were doctors. Eventually, however, you realise that they provide a protective barrier between you and potentially harmful substances, while helping with infection control. They also help to hide bad clothing choices on a Monday morning!

What exciting things are your team up to at the moment?

We are currently advertising our ImmunoCAP ISAC assay, which is basically an allergy testing method. Sometimes trying to find the original cause for allergic reactions is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is especially true when symptoms and case history are inconsistent; the patient is multi-sensitized or shows unsatisfactory response to the treatment. This is where ISAC testing can be very useful, as the method involves a highly advanced tool for revealing the patient’s IgE antibody profile. It is the result of innovative biochip technology and cutting-edge research in molecular allergology. We are starting to offer this service to the public, but we are still working to develop it further.

What is your opinion on the ongoing NHS reforms and have they impacted on your job?

The NHS is constantly changing around us, however, I have not had any direct implications in my current job. I can’t say how the future will pan out, but I’m sure new changes that affect my job directly, will be introduced soon.

How do you kick back and get away from it all?

When I’m not at work I am busy running a Cub Scout section. I have been involved in the Scouting movement since the age of 10 and have had some fabulous opportunities – when I was just 16 years old, I was selected to attend the World Scout Jamboree, held in Thailand, where I got to explore the country and meet fellow scouts from all over the world. I also completed my Queen Scout Award, which is the highest youth award in the Scouting movement. It involved a range of tasks, from a four-day hike in the Dark Peaks to spending time in Kenya carrying out a community project. Once completed, I attended the Queen Scout parade held at Windsor Castle, where I got to meet Bear Grylls and the Duchess of Cambridge.

What challenges lie ahead for Rachel Wilson?

In the next year I have one major challenge – I am currently 27 weeks pregnant and will have my first child in April. I then have to switch from being a Biomedical Scientist to becoming a mother. Once I return to work I would like to start my specialist portfolio within immunology. This will provide me with in-depth knowledge of the testing we perform and I can also explore related immunological conditions.

Toodle-oo, Rachel!