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Spotlight: Katy Onions - Trainee Clinical Scientist (Biochemistry), NHS

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

I’ve been volunteering with Girlguiding for 10 years; this involves unit meetings every week and fun activities such as camps and pack holidays. It’s really rewarding teaching the girls life skills, such as cooking and first aid.

Tell us about your career journey so far.

I chose biology, chemistry, and psychology for A-level…I definitely wanted to be a scientist of some sort.

I studied Biomedical Science at Lancaster University. One of my favourite parts of the degree was looking at case studies and using the patient’s symptoms along with their laboratory results to figure out what was going on. After doing a placement year in an NHS laboratory, I knew that this was an environment I wanted to work in.

I attended a career’s evening at uni, where a clinical scientist was talking about the career and how you get into it, which is via the Scientist Training Programme (STP). This programme was really appealing to me so I did my research and applied in my final year. I knew that I enjoyed biochemistry case studies so this was the specialism I applied for…now I am looking at results from real patients!

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

I loved biology because I found the human body really interesting (I wasn’t as keen on plants but I enjoyed it anyway). I also loved completing the practical experiments with my friends in class.

At A-level I also really enjoyed psychology; it was absolutely fascinating and I learnt a lot of scientific and analytical skills that I use all the time now.

What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?

Biology and chemistry are important for my job: we are testing patients’ blood (and other bodily fluids) and interpreting the results; it’s really important that we know which tests are most appropriate, and to have an understanding of how the human body works in order to know what is wrong with the patient.

Communication is a vital skill: communicating effectively with each other in the lab, and also with the doctors and teams outside of the lab, is super important to keep our patients safe.

Analytical and problem-solving skills: an analytical mind is key to being a scientist!

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I love the rewarding nature of the job; although you are ‘behind the scenes’ as a scientist, you’re ultimately having a positive impact on patient care. I also love sharing knowledge and skills of the job with others; for example, I’ve been able to attend conferences in which I have presented a project I have completed. It’s great to be able to discuss the outcomes of projects with other healthcare professionals and also people with a different background.

What is a normal day in your role like?

Well, there is no normal day! The job brings such variation. As patient samples are tested in the lab throughout the day (and night), a clinical scientist will be identifying the abnormal results that we need to urgently tell the doctors about so they can look after their patient accordingly.

We will be looking at results from a whole variety of different tests and interpreting them to see what they mean for the patient. For example, our tests help in the diagnosis of: cancer, diabetes, pregnancy, infections, poisoning, and much much more. The work that lab staff complete underpins 80% of all diagnoses! We also help healthcare professionals outside of the lab with any queries they have, including how to interpret results, or what tests they should do for a patient next.

And what does your job title mean?

A clinical scientist in biochemistry works in healthcare laboratories to facilitate the analysis of patients’ samples and interpret the results. Clinical scientists are a connection between doctors/nurses and the laboratory.

We do ‘detective work’ to piece a puzzle together to benefit patients. The doctors and nurses have collected some ‘clues’, and we team together with them to put all of

these clues together. This includes looking at the patient’s symptoms, their history, and of course the blood test results which we generate in the lab. Together, these clues help diagnose or monitor a health condition. We can tell so much from just a tiny amount of blood!

Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

In the lab we follow ‘standard operating procedures’ which are lists of instructions telling us exactly how to perform tasks. Why don’t you practise this skill by baking a cake…following a recipe is like following a standard operating procedure! If you want to challenge yourself, try following more than one recipe at the same time and making sure your timings are efficient (we have to multitask in the lab whilst making sure everything is performed to a high standard)! Here’s a recipe to try:

Alternatively, why don’t you try this STEM resource on digestion? This is a fun experiment to do at home which mimics the functioning of the digestive system and the enzymes involved:


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