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Spotlight: Abigail Hay, PhD Student at The Pirbright Institute

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I can play steel pans and played at secondary school and university!

Tell us about your career journey so far

I really enjoyed science at school and I love animals so I took Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and English as my five highers as I was thinking about being a vet. As I started doing more Biology and learning about genetics and the immune system I realised that actually I wanted to be the scientist investigating how it all works.

I went to the University of Aberdeen to study Genetics and Immunology and had the opportunity to do a summer placement and a full placement year as part of my degree which gave me lots of hands on experience which has been really valuable. It also taught me a lot about the “real world” of science and about myself as a young scientist.

Now I am doing my PhD working on the cattle immune system and understanding how the immune system detects viruses and why genetics can play a role in how well this process works. Eventually this information could help us to breed animals that are less likely to get sick from a particular virus, or even help us to develop better vaccines.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

It has to be Biology (but Maths would be a close second!) because I like understanding how our (and animal) bodies work and I was interested in the bits we can’t see with our eyes like our cells and DNA.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

Definitely biology as it’s a role focused on investigating how a living organism works.

A lot of jobs as scientists studying animal (or human) health look for you to have an undergraduate degree (BSc Hons) in a biology based subject (e.g. genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, virology) but, there are also college courses and apprenticeships you can do which can also lead you to the same role. As long as you love biology you can take a lot of different qualification paths towards being a scientist.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I get to do lots of different experiments and answer questions than no one else is answering! It merges all my interests together into one and knowing that one day my research could make a difference to a field I am passionate about is really motivating and makes it even more rewarding when the experiments work!

What is a normal day in your role like?

A normal day for me is a mix of work in the lab and work at my desk. I will have experiments to run but also data to analyse and write up at my desk. I’ll also spend some time planning what I’m going to do next. Sometimes plans change last minute so each day is different and you get really good at thinking on your feet and being flexible (I’m still improving on that!).

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

I really loved it when I extracted DNA at school for the first time and it can be done at home in your kitchen too. You don’t need to use your own DNA you could do it on something that’s easy to mush like a strawberry instead!

Eventually, my work could help us make better vaccines for cattle and the British Society for Immunology has some great resources on how the immune system works and why vaccines can stop us getting sick.


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