We ask our female members 10 questions about their careers in biomedical science
Una Gibbons started her career in medical laboratories over 40 years ago, initially as a basic grade biochemist at a Dublin teaching hospital.
1. What made you decide to become a scientist?
One day at science class at school, I dropped THE precious bottle of mercury. The nun, our teacher almost became apoplectic and I was subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. I was told to get down on my knees and scoop it all back into the bottle. It didn’t seem to matter that all the dirt and dust from the floor was going into that bottle also – but every last drop had to be put back in!
Having overcome the trauma of this event, I began to enjoy science classes at school and it was around then that I considered studying science. However, I was also keen to study medicine but as the eldest daughter of a family of 11, whose father would have had to pay for my medical education, I considered it a big ask.
On reflection, I settled for a science degree with the intention of becoming a “medical scientist”.
2. Who has inspired you?
My first job was in the mid-70s. At that time, radioimmune assays for hormone testing was in its infancy. My boss was running the lab in a busy tertiary care hospital as well as studying for her PhD. She was developing an assay for parathyroid hormone (PTH). This involved injecting chickens with antigen to raise antibodies. These chickens then had to be bled and PTH antibodies harvested and subsequently iodinated with Iodine 131.
On one occasion, all the chickens died overnight from an apparent fast acting virus. This was one of the many setbacks but eventually, the assay worked and my colleague obtained her PhD. Her perseverance and dedication inspired me because while I describe the process in a few short sentences, it was extremely arduous and time consuming. By the time I left my career in Biochemistry, PTH assays were fully automated.
3. What has been the toughest challenge you have had to overcome in your career?
Having worked as a senior biomedical scientist in Biochemistry for many decades, I was invited to become quality officer at the National Genetic Centre of Oman. I had to address my very limited knowledge of diagnostic genetics in addition to setting up the Quality Management System in the newly opened laboratory. I participated in Eurogentest online training courses and observed the application of the various techniques in the laboratory.One notable difference was in the area of Internal Quality Control (IQC).
Having come from a background of clinical biochemistry with very well established internal quality control methodologies, standards traceable to certified reference materials or equivalent, delta checks, technical checks and other checks on results to an environment where IQC was qualitative rather than numerical. There was very little formal IQC monitoring taking place in the laboratory at the time. Also External Quality Assurance (EQA) in both cytogenetics and molecular genetics is still in early stages of development compared with biochemistry, in most cases only taking place once or twice a year in genetics e.g., in cytogenetics, only the analytical phase is tested in the form of an online picture of a karyogram for analysis and interpretation, without ever actually
Also, External Quality Assurance (EQA) in both cytogenetics and molecular genetics is still in early stages of development compared with biochemistry, in most cases only taking place once or twice a year in genetics e.g., in cytogenetics, only the analytical phase is tested in the form of an online picture of a karyogram for analysis and interpretation, without ever actually handling a sample.
4. What was the worst setback you have experienced so far?
Having completed the theory for MSc in Clinical Biochemistry, I was unable to complete my dissertation where I worked because there was “no money for anything extra”. The country was experiencing a recession at the time.
5. What is the best moment of your career to date?
Being accepted as a chartered scientist.
6. What do you love about your work?
I loved the variety. I worked in Oman for 25 years. Owing to the high rate of consanguineous marriages in Oman relative to European countries, autosomal recessive disorders are far more common than in western countries. For anyone involved in pathology, it offered an endless variety of very rare conditions, which were at times immensely challenging to diagnose but with the help of some very bright chemical pathologists, we cracked many of these cases. One of the consultant chemical pathologist’s once remarked, “I have seen more pathology in 3 years here, (in Oman) than I would see in 30 years in the UK."
Between 2005 – 2012, I was in charge of referring samples abroad for specialist testing, A significant number of these samples were for genetic testing. Through collaboration with international laboratories, I facilitated significant numbers of mutually advantageous collaborations which lead to joint publications in international journals. Such collaborations included, with Diabetes.org at the University of Exeter for congenital hyperinsulinism, neonatal diabetes mellitus, Omani phaeochromocytoma patients have had their genetic risk stratified in the laboratory at the University of Freiberg, Germany under the auspices of one of the world’s leading experts in the field, Professor Neumann.
7. What are the funniest things you have seen in your line of work?
I was on call one night and was woken at about 3:00am by a call from the technician on duty in biochemistry with the message that there was a flood in the lab. In my sleepy state, I asked where was the water coming from to which the reply came – “from under the Synchron”. I threw on clothes and made it into the lab to find my Omani colleague Yasser (not his real name) with his characteristic smiling face - sloshing around in his bare feet, holding up the white dish dasha (Omani national dress for men and boys) in three inches of water. We eventually made contact with the control room, stopped the flow of water and before too long with help from housekeeping colleagues, cleared up the mini flood.
Another funny aspect of work in Oman was that the same member of staff was habitually late for work. It was very difficult to tell him off because he had the most amazingly disarming smile. He was quite imaginative with excuses – eg. there were goats on the road and another was that “the lights were stuck on red in Ibra”. It’s worth noting that Ibra was at that time a small village and did not have any traffic lights. When asked to try to get to work on time in future, the reply was invariably “Inshallah” always delivered with a beaming smile.
8. What are your future career plans?
I am now semi-retired and intend training to be a laboratory assessor. I am also exploring openings where my knowledge, skills and experience can be used. I will continue to learn and keep abreast of scientific developments.
9. What advice would you give to aspiring female scientists?
With the advancement of genetics, science is entering an entirely new and exciting era. For anyone interested in pursuing a career in science, the opportunities are legion. However, science is advancing at a very rapid pace and therefore I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD). In my case, by joining the IBMS in the early 1990’s I was able to formalise my CPD. This has facilitated and enhanced my employment opportunities immeasurably.
10. Anything else you would like to share?
I started my career in medical laboratories over 40 years ago, initially as a basic grade biochemist at a Dublin teaching hospital. I recall those early
I recall those early days of measuring 24-hour urines in a renal and metabolic unit, “blow drying” little spots of serum and urine for amino acid chromatography and having to deproteinise blood before doing a glucose assay which took 30 minutes incubation before taking the reading on a spectrophotometer.
Laboratory medicine has moved a long way since then and throughout my career, I have worked in 6 different institutions in three countries. My last full time job was as Quality Officer (QO) at the National Genetic Centre (NGC) in Oman. I worked in Biochemistry for most of my career.