Alex Fower – Research Assistant
What is your role at MRC Harwell? How long have you worked here?
I am a Research Assistant in the Molecular & Cellular Biology Group. My main roles include designing, validating, and genotyping gene-edited mice (typically using CRISPR/Cas9) for use in medical research. I have worked for the MRC for four years.
What is your career/education background?
I studied at the University of Southampton, graduating with a master’s degree in Biochemistry in 2017. My first job after University was an internship in a Medical Communications agency, which I left without much of a plan, except that I wanted to find something more involved with science. Luckily I saw an advert for an opening at MRC Harwell, applied, and was offered it as a part-time position, which was then transitioned to full-time after 6 months.
Did you see yourself doing this kind of job when you were younger?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was a kid, but I gradually narrowed down options over time, as I knew I wanted to do science, then after A-Levels knew that it would be within the biological sciences, and finally I settled on the idea of working in genetics towards the end of my degree. But even then I didn’t come straight to a job in genetics and took a fairly circuitous route until this job happened to fall into my lap!
What do you enjoy most about your job?
No day is the same. Every mouse model we generate is different and has a unique set of challenges, so our approach to designing them always has to be different and bespoke, meaning it’s always interesting and I’m always learning. Also, I work across the whole pipeline of mouse model generation, so the technical work I’m doing changes a lot from day to day and it’s great to see the whole process through.
How has your role changed?
When I first started here, I was only part-time and still had a job two days a week at Waitrose. Moving to full-time was great as it was much easier to quickly gain confidence in what I was doing and showed me that I still wanted to push myself more.
I was then asked to step in to be involved with our Genome Editing Mice for Medicine (GEMM) programme after another member of staff went on leave. This has meant that, although I still genotype mice, I have more responsibilities in the design of genetically altered mice. I am also now more involved in the client liaison side of the job.
In addition, I’m also now helping to run the Practical Laboratory Skills training course at Advance!
What advice do you give to new colleagues starting in junior roles?
My main advice would be to ask lots of questions. I now don’t care so much if I might seem stupid when I ask a question and have more confidence that nobody will think I look stupid, whereas, in the past, I’ve had questions that I worried about asking and realised sometime later that I still didn’t know the answer and just regretted not asking! I’ve also learnt to accept that genome editing is complicated, so it’s ok to not understand everything immediately and to ask questions!
You also shouldn’t worry too much about what other people are doing or how far along they’ve got – there will always be people who’ve achieved more than me and I shouldn’t be hard on myself about that!
What are the skills you have gained during your career that have made the biggest impact?
I’ve had to force myself to improve my communication skills through exposure, whether when giving a presentation or just writing an email, and I’ve learnt to be more proactive in putting myself forward for things and more positive in saying yes when asked if I could do things. I’m sure that these have helped open doors and give me access to more opportunities, like joining the team running the GEMM programme.
I was also really pleased to have been put forward to do a Train the Trainer course and am excited to be using these new skills in helping to run the Practical Laboratory Skills course at Advance.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I’m pretty obsessed with snooker and if I could be doing any other job, I would have loved to have been a professional snooker player.
I also enjoy running and have done some half marathons for charity – I say I enjoy this, but although the half marathons and organising events around them has been great, the training is not so much fun!
This interview was completed in the summer of 2022. Alex has since left MRC Harwell. We caught up to see where his career took him next.
I left MRC Harwell in February 2023. I stayed within the MRC but I now work at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Here I am more involved with academic research, specifically in the field of Myeloma (blood cancer). I am a Research Assistant within a larger group looking at DNA damage and repair. I use a lot of the skills I learned at Harwell, but I am also learning a lot of new techniques in a different field which is great.