So this week (22nd to the 28th of March) I’m taking over the awesome RoCur account @RealScientists and I thought that given the influx of new people I’d write up a bit of background on me.
TL;DR – My name is Matthew Partridge (aged 31 and 3/4) and I work as a post-Doc at Cranfield University in the UK.
I was born in a small town called Kettering, which is world-famous for [example not found]. My parents were both pharmacists and from pretty much the age of dot, I was destined to be fascinated by science. I spent most of my childhood away from home – at the age of 8, I went to boarding schools. A side-effect of that education is that I have what is commonly described as ‘the most British’ British accent possible.
My journey into science has been long and I’ve changed my mind a pretty fair amount about what it is exactly that I love.
It was at the age of about 12 (the pathologist years… I read a lot of Patricia Cornwell books) that I became utterly hooked on science and it became the one class I really looked forward to. Chemistry in particular was totally fascinating to me. I can remember randomly mixing the stuff my friend Henry and I could find around the school in a pencil case until it formed a kind of jelly sludge. Although, despite this clear aptitude for chemistry, one of my early science teachers wrote in a school report “Matthew should not consider a career in science”.
Over time, I started to think beyond pathology and about this thing called ‘research’. Being the generally uninformed naive teenager I was, I figured I’d do this thing called ‘research’ as a job – although I hadn’t really got a clue what it was. For example, when my school brought in two actual researchers to do mock university interviews, one asked me “So why do you want to do research?” and I eloquently replied “Because I think I’d be okay with the boring repetitive bits…”. Not only did the researchers then wet themselves with laughter but this was all helpfully recorded on tape so that I could “watch it back and learn from it.” – I never watched it back, the sensation of the ground opening up beneath me was memorable enough.
I left school with a mostly terrible three D’s at A-level – in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. I should mention at this point that I was/am very badly dyslexic. I’m no educational genius but a familiar pattern with my school work was that my coursework was mostly marked a B grade but my exam papers were an exercise in proving that putting a dyslexic with illegible writing and terrible spelling under pressure is not a good way of getting good results.
But even with my frankly shocking A-Levels, I still got accepted to a University to study Biochemistry (Hi, Lancaster!). The only real effect of these grades was that I was put to the bottom of the pile for things like housing and, along with ~15 or so other students, I spent my first month at university staying in emergency accommodation in their health centre. Sleeping on hospital beds in shared rooms was a unique start to university life but I did learn how to cook with just a microwave – which is obviously a vital life skill…
My Biochemistry degree was a mixed experience – my first year of chemistry was spent with a lecturer who didn’t want to “get on to complicated bond stuff…” and kept referring to any bond as a “hooooook”. But the biology component was pretty great and I was totally enthralled by genetics and immunology. Sadly for me, no amount of interest could solve my dyslexia (which still screwed up every exam I touched) and I graduated with a Third.
After university I did what every graduate does and loaded my CV into the broadest shotgun I could find and fired it at the jobs market. This quickly meant that I got job offers to which even unemployment seemed like a better idea – for example, one of my first interviews/offers was from an analytical chemistry company who made me sit a mini exam as part of the interview process. Now that in and of itself isn’t too unexpected but the questions included “If a truck can carry 10 tons of coal and you have 3 trucks of coal how much coal do you have?”… I decided that they probably didn’t want someone with a degree education and politely declined.
After a few months I eventually got offered an interview – with a Biomedical company called Mediwatch. The interview went really well and they seemed like a small but interesting company. The strangest thing about the whole process was that my interviewer kept saying “when you start…” and “this is your desk.”. I later learned that I was the only candidate and he’d been essentially told by the CEO that, unless I drooled on myself, he had to hire me.
Mediwatch was an amazing first job. I was a lowly entry-level scientist in a lab of 3 people. There was the technical director and the lab manager – who spent the first few months teaching me all the practical skills that I had failed to learn at university, while ensuring that I also learned a complete history of her family of cats.
My 4 years at Mediwatch were spent developing a Point of Care test for Prostate Specific Antigen. It was a lateral flow test and thanks to our team being small, I got to do every little bit of it. I helped design the optical reader, the graphics, wrote the manual, designed the FDA trials, learnt how to 3D sculpt for injection moulding, and occasionally made the tea. Working in a small company was for me, a great way to get lots of varied R&D experience very quickly.
In addition to that one test system, I got to developed my own assay technology, file my first patent, have my first project cancelled for random management reasons, and see my idea given away to someone else. I’m not bitter, honest… *mutters to self*
Eventually, I realised that one company wasn’t exactly everything I wanted out of a career. Having such a small work force kind of meant that to be promoted any higher, I needed someone to die… So I decided to hit the job market again to find somewhere with more room to grow. Like an idiot, I thought that I could apply for roughly the same job as I was doing now at other companies, however as I was now in a more senior position than when I first started work, almost all the job listings wanted a candidate with an MSc and experience, or a PhD.
My soon-to-be born son was due in November of the same year and so I figured that if I was going to have to deal with late nights, lack of sleep and an unruly housemate, I might as well go back to university for the full student experience. So I applied to Cranfield University and got offered a PhD in an area I’d never worked in before, using kit I had never heard of. So in 2009, at the age of 27, I started my PhD in ‘Fiber Optics with Molecular Coatings’.
Coming from a 9-5 style work environment meant transitioning to PhD work was a breeze. Most of my peers did a solid 11-2 so by comparison, I looked like some kind of workaholic. The hardest part was that I didn’t really have a proper focus or project to start on as the initial outline turned out to be more of a rough guide. This wasn’t helped by half the kit being totally alien to me.
I’ve since learnt that starting a PhD with no clear title, project or clue about what you should be doing is amazingly common. For some, I guess it can be overwhelming and frustrating to not have the support you need. For me, I was like a kid in a candy store! After years of working for a company with no equipment or budget, I now had a massive set of labs and free access to a plethora of fancy equipment.
Despite being like the science lab equivalent of a moth with ADHD, I eventually manage to focus on one selection of areas to write up a PhD – and even managed to hand in my thesis on time. It was also when I started blogging – so you can read about my PhD viva experience here.
After my PhD, I spent a year doing some short/part-time post-Doc positions at Cranfield while looking around for another post-Doc position. That year was pretty much spent realising that the post-Doc job market sucks and is a horrible place to spend any time whatsoever.
Happily, I was offered a post-Doc position on a brand new grant at Cranfield – developing a breath sensor for ammonia. Which very neatly brings us up to date.