Sue Alexander

We ask our female members 10 questions about their careers in biomedical science

Sue Alexander Sue Alexander 02MSc MSc MBA (Open) CSci FIBMS CBiol FRSB MIHM MCQI CQP Cert Mgmt (Open) Dip Bus Admin, is Principal Biomedical Scientist & Pathology Services Manager, at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

With 3 science A levels, rather than attend university, Sue opted to enter laboratory work at Great Ormond Street's Microbiology department. She steadily worked her way up the ladder and developed an addiction to gaining qualifications along the way. Sue is a self-confessed pseudo-academic with a keen interest in education and development and she is now a champion of quality and improvement.


1.   What made you decide to become a scientist? 

Ever since I was quite young I wanted a different sort of career and had a very strong determination to do science based on my fascination with chemical reactions seen in my junior chemistry set (which would probably be banned for health and safety reasons now) and from digging up worms and ants in the garden. I’ve always been fascinated by living things.


2.   Who has inspired you?

I grew up in a household where television was banned so never saw any science programmes regularly, although Tomorrow’s World was exciting when I was able to see it. I also grew up with a love of science fiction and fantasy which meant I had great expectations of what science could achieve and how there was theoretically no limit to knowledge or achievement. Now I am inspired by David Attenborough in terms of biology and ecology.


3.   What has been the toughest challenge you have had to overcome in your career?

Wanting to do things that were not part of the standard pathway of education or career development. So I went off-piste so to speak to work around the obstacles and get myself onto what was at the time an MSc course that was difficult to get on to. 


4.   What was the worst setback you have experienced so far?

I have been fortunate not to have had serious setbacks, just some disappointments. For example, not getting an automatic promotion on completing my Fellowship when all other staff before me had done. I didn’t dwell on it and have apparently done well since. I haven’t got all the jobs I went for even when headhunted and interviewed but being able to live with disappointment, learn from it and move on is part of being professional.


5.   What is the best moment of your career to date?

Any significant achievement personally has been good such as twice getting a Chief Scientific Officer’s award for being part of a team that organises an annual schools' science conference. But getting feedback from someone that I recently spent a lot of time supporting through a very difficult qualification pathway has been particularly rewarding.


6.   What do you love about your work?

Developing people, helping them understand themselves, helping people achieve their potential and move forwards in their own careers. I really get a lot from seeing developments in science applied to new equipment and techniques and the speed with which science changes.


7.   What are the funniest things you have seen in your line of work?

I was quite startled once when I looked down a microscope and saw a crab louse waving its legs at me. Also when a patient produced a round worm (Ascaris) from their nose and the ward staff were in a bit of a spin especially as the porter would not bring the sample over as the worm was wriggling in the sample container. I was able to impress them by both identifying the worm and sexing it.


8.   What are your future career plans?

I’d still like to move to managing a big multisite Pathology operation. 


9.   What advice would you give to aspiring female scientists?

Don’t be hung up on being female/not being male. Science is great, it allows you to achieve anything you want, there are many women in the workplace at all levels, including plenty in senior management. Stick to your guns, get the right qualifications, go for interviews and if you don’t get the job don’t get down hearted. 

I am also keen to continue and develop the work I do with both IBMS/University of Ulster online tutoring and also at the University of Greenwich where I am an alumnus, course author, tutor and chair of the Biomed consortium. I am a UKAS assessor for microbiology which whilst it is hard work gives a fascinating insight into other people’s departments so I do as many visits a year as I can. It has been of benefit to my own departments.


10.   Anything else you would like to share?

Have fun in your job, never lose a childlike fascination with science. I love new developments and technologies and I tend to have analyser envy.