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How a chemistry degree led to a career in oncology

MChem Chemistry for Drug Discovery graduate Alex Orton talks about her career as a senior scientist atAstraZeneca.

Alex Orton in a lab coat at her place of work
Alex graduated from MChem Chemistry for Drug Discovery in 2015

From an early stage I knew that I wanted to work in a laboratory environment, and I was especially drawn to working in the pharmaceutical industry. With research showing that one in two people will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime1, I felt driven to be involved in oncology research.

As part of my degree I undertook a placement year at Takeda Ltd, where I found myself, almost by accident, in the Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics (DMPK) department and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think this experience really helped to guide where I wanted my career to go after I finished my studies.

After I graduated from Bath in 2015, I joined AstraZeneca in their Oncology DMPK department as an in vitro Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Elimination (ADME) lab-based scientist. I’m now a Senior Scientist, and my role is to design, carry out and report in vitro experiments to determine the rates of metabolism of a test compound. The end goal is to use this data to create dose predictions for humans. I’m primarily lab based, using various methods to measure the behaviour of our compounds – which may potentially become medicines – within the body.

During the pandemic, AstraZeneca worked in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline and the University of Cambridge to set up and run one of the UK’s lighthouse laboratories for COVID-19 testing. I volunteered to be part of this team during the first lockdown as a preparation scientist, unpacking, pipetting, and deactivating patient samples prior to RNA extraction and PCR analysis. I moved into a team leader role from September 2020, leading a team of up to 30 scientists able to process 20,000 samples per day. I’ve now returned to my original role, but it was very rewarding to have played a part in the fight against the virus.

I think my favourite thing about my job is being able to work to my own schedule, planning upcoming experiments and the flexibility that comes with this. As scientists we are always on the lookout for new and interesting science that could impact on current projects. Designing experiments is really exciting, and if these lead to new medicines for patients that would be incredible.

Studying chemistry is a brilliant way to open up a wide range of options for your future career. Studying at Bath gives you all the fundamentals whilst also providing the chance to choose modules that allow you to really focus on topics that interest you. My favourite thing about Bath is the industrial links and the support you receive looking for placement. This experience was invaluable for me – it showed me a new area of science I was really interested in and gave me so many transferrable skills for the future

‘Studying chemistry is a brilliant way to open up a wide range of options for your future career.’
Alex Orton Chemistry graduate (2015)