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Becoming a Scientist in Industry – Naveed Ahmad

Nov 01st, 2018 | Blog

What does it take to become a scientist in industry? When asked to write this month’s blog, I thought it would be interesting for readers to hear about my journey from education to scientist within the molecular biology team here at Ingenza, and what I’ve been getting up to since.

How I came to be at Ingenza

I would have the opportunity to go to Ingenza and experience working in a world-leading biotechnology company

I earned my degree in Biomedical Science from the University of the West of Scotland. Although this degree opened up many options for employment, none of them really grabbed my interest at the time, so I decided to pursue further studies through a Master’s degree in Industrial Biotechnology at the then newly formed Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in Glasgow. This offered the chance for a three month industrial placement, and it quickly became clear that the placement offered by Ingenza was the most sought after among my peers – even though I hadn’t really heard of Ingenza until then!

This competition really drove me to be the best in my class, so that I would have the opportunity to go to Ingenza and experience working in a world-leading biotechnology company. I did end up at Ingenza for that placement, thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, and was intrigued by the work they were doing. I was inspired by the possibilities of biotechnology in the age of synthetic biology.

An evolving journey

I have been at Ingenza for just over three years, and sometimes forget how far I’ve progressed, because we are always focused on the next goal. Since starting here, I’ve always felt that I was lacking the level of knowledge and practical skills of my colleagues, pushing me to ‘catch up’ as quickly as possible. I’m not really sure where this feeling came from. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I hadn’t really studied molecular biology at undergrad level, and felt I was missing some fundamental knowledge that everyone else had. Whether justified or not, this imposter syndrome has never really left, and helps to motivate and push me to keep learning and improving. The environment and culture at Ingenza are such that you are constantly learning and gaining knowledge to push projects forward. This allows us to keep challenging ourselves, finding new ways of doing things so that we can help our team.

The environment and culture at Ingenza are such that you are constantly learning and gaining knowledge to push projects forward

The amount of freedom given to researchers, and the variety of projects you are involved in at any one time, is one of the main reasons I enjoy working here so much. Over the past three years, I have worked on projects involving four different micro-organisms and ranging from complex metabolic engineering to protein production, as well as developing innovative novel bioengineering tools to improve our capabilities for future projects. Exposure to such a variety of problems has certainly maintained my hunger to keep learning and improving. 

Another unique factor that we have at Ingenza is the incredible diversity of our team; no matter what you are trying to do, there is always someone you can go to for advice or to bounce ideas off. This means that we are all able to learn from each other, and has led to a kind of teaching environment within the company. 

This brings me to another aspect of my ever-evolving journey at Ingenza – mentoring new members of the team and Master’s students that have visited us in the years since my own placement. I mentioned above, it’s easy to forget how much you have developed over a period of time in industry, since there are no ‘exams’ to judge yourself from. Mentoring students every summer has provided a way to assess myself in that respect, especially more recently, as I have been given greater freedom to help the students plan and execute their projects. As well as offering a way to judge my own scientific ability, the inquisitive nature of students also makes me realise just how much I still have to learn.  

It’s not just all in the lab

Although the majority of my time is spent in the lab, some of the most enjoyable parts of my role are not about conducting experiments. One of the most rewarding aspects of working at Ingenza are the opportunities to get involved in writing research proposals; either grant proposals or research agreements with new customers. These are a great way of getting involved in new research, as well as allowing you to put forward ideas and see them come to fruition. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of working at Ingenza are the opportunities to get involved in writing research proposals

I also recently had the opportunity to take over the official Twitter account for EmPowerPutida – an EU-funded Horizon 2020 programme involving some incredible scientists around Europe – for a few months. This gave me the chance to showcase the excellent work we do at Ingenza to our collaborators, funders and the general public. 

I like to use my personal Twitter account to connect with scientists all around the world. It’s an incredible tool, which every modern scientist should be using to share and converse with other like-minded individuals, and also allows members of the public to see what scientists are up to. As obsessive researchers, we can become so engrossed in our work and its possible impacts that we forget to include the public in our conversations. The potential of biotechnology and synthetic biology are too great to allow these technologies to succumb to the ever present ‘fear factor’ sometimes associated with GMO products – as well as negative labels about ‘playing God’ – and we should all do our part to get involved with the public to show people the benefits.