An Interview with...a Cancer Research Technician

Nafia, 28, is a Scientific Officer at The Institute for Cancer Research. Read on to hear more about Nafia's technical role is helping to diagnose and fight cancer to save lives worldwide

Day to day I... on tissue donated to us by people with rare types of cancer.

In the lab, I extract DNA and RNA from the tissue, and then look at the information from it carries and examine what it means so we can find out more about the rare cancer.  Once we have this information, we can try to predict how a patient would respond when given a specific medicine to treat their cancer. If that specific medicine would not help them very much, their Doctor can decide to give them a different one, which may be better at fighting their cancer.

My work as a technician is important... the results from the experiments I do, provide information to prove or disprove our hypotheses on the best ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

My role in my current team involves validating a molecular test designed by our team and collaborators, which picks out patients whose tumours have a particular molecular signature. This has involved analysing sarcoma samples from a number of independent centres to see whether the test gives us the same results as seen in the original study. Once we have further tested the robustness of our classifier, it can be used in a clinical setting to organise patients into groups according to their potential response to particular therapies.

As a technician, I am a vital part of the team

If a team member has a large volume of experiments to do, within a short timeframe, then I provide technical support to help them to complete the experiments and meet their deadlines.

I am usually the one to train new members of staff in molecular techniques, such as microtomy – tissue that is embedded in wax is cut into very small sections – DNA/RNA extraction and quality control. I also write our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for these techniques, to ensure consistency in our experiments so that they produce strong, reliable results and can be repeated.

I became interested in cancer biology...

...during university. Before joining ICR, I worked in two cancer biobanks  - 'libraries' storing tissue from people with cancer. It was there that I gained an understanding of what a precious resource donated patient samples were in the research process.

I really wanted to get back into a research lab to work on processing and analysing patient samples to answer important research questions to further our understanding of cancer and potential new ways to treat it and my current job was a perfect fit.

The best bit about my job... seeing how our experiments help answer our research questions -  and especially seeing results hold true across different sets of patient samples.

I also really enjoy learning new skills through training and workshops, whether they are technical or interpersonal skills. Training new lab members is something I have come to enjoy, seeing them become independent and skilled in the molecular techniques we use in our lab is great. It is a fantastic way to build on my own soft skills also.

If you are considering a technical career...

I recommend being open to learning as many new skills as possible, but also honing a set of core technical skills and building an expertise in these.

It is a good idea to keep up with how scientific research is moving in your chosen field and how techniques are evolving to accommodate this. Try to gain practical lab experience if possible, a lot of institutions offer summer school placements in labs, which is the best way to see how a lab works day to day.


Nafia's Daily Routine 


My day usually starts with a coffee, whilst going through my emails, to-do list and messages on Slack, the instant messaging app we use in our team. I try to plan my experiments a week or two in advance, as we are a large group, so I usually have to plan around weekly lab meetings.


I work on soft tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. We collaborate with a number of centres around the world who kindly provide us with preserved samples containing the cancer patients’ DNA, RNA and proteins - so my typical wet lab days consist of extraction of DNA or RNA, having cut the starting material on a microtome - a machine that cuts extremely fine slices of tissue - the previous day.


Once the RNA is extracted (the samples for DNA extraction need to incubate overnight and the extraction process takes two days), I will need to check the concentration quality, to see if there is enough material for analysis.


I write up my experimental notes and results into my lab book and answer any outstanding emails. We collaborate with a core facility to do our other types of analysis, so will usually send my quality control results to a colleague there if I am unsure it is of good enough quality for the analysis.


Check on my incubating DNA and add more buffer as this will be extracted tomorrow.


Go home and hopefully avoid the worst of rush hour!


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