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Where science can take you…

By Julia Hill

Julia is a postdoctoral research fellow in Screening at the Centre for Drug Research and Development in Vancouver. She did her PhD in Mitochondrial Biology at University College London (UCL) and her BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Bath. In her free time, she loves to read, run, cycle, and explore the world.

I grew up in a village in Devon, in the south west of the UK. As a family we didn’t travel, but I read constantly, and longed to see the world I read about. Both of my parents had left school at 16, and other than my teachers, I didn’t really know anyone who had a degree, or who could give career advice. So I chose to study Biochemistry at university because my favourite subjects were Biology and Chemistry, rather than as any part of a long term plan.

The beach at Wembury, the Devon village of 2700 people where I grew up.

The beach at Wembury, the Devon village of 2700 people where I grew up.

I chose to study at the University of Bath, a city around 3 hours drive away, because it was highly ranked for Biochemistry and, importantly, when I went to visit there were ducklings in the lake on campus, and the sandstone city glowed a beautiful golden yellow at sunset. When I started, it turned out the other students had thought their decision through much more sensibly than me, and most people had chosen to study at Bath because of their placement (or co-op) programme – after your second year of studies you had the option to work for a year in a relevant industry before returning to finish your degree. When the time came, I was surprised, and somewhat terrified, to be offered a placement at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, researching nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and pain. Although I had thrown myself into as much travelling as possible since leaving home, I had never left Europe at this point, and was only 19.

It turned out I absolutely loved Arizona. The enormous cacti and incredible stark landscapes were so different to anything I’d ever seen before, and coming from the UK, a whole 12 months without cold or rain was heaven. It also turned out I loved neuroscience, enough that I decided to do a PhD, which hadn’t even crossed my mind before my placement year.

With friends (I am first on the left), about to hike down the Grand Canyon.

With friends (I am first on the left), about to hike down the Grand Canyon.

With one of those enormous cacti.

With one of those enormous cacti.

I returned to the UK, and finished my Bachelors, deciding in my final year, that I wanted to my research to focus on neurological disease and drug discovery. I then did my PhD at University College London, on mitochondria and calcium as therapeutic targets in neurodegeneration, attending conferences across Europe along the way, followed by a postdoc at the Alzheimer’s Research UK UCL Drug Discovery Institute. I started looking around the world for where I might work next, which is how I found the Centre for Drug Research and Development, in Vancouver. I had never been to Canada (bar a terrible 3 days stuck in Toronto airport once), but CDRD seemed like a great place to work, with a track record of success in delivering new medicines to the clinic and, from what I saw on Google, Vancouver seemed like a pretty great place to live too. So here I am.

January 29th, 2016.  The selfie I sent my parents before I handed in my PhD thesis.

January 29th, 2016. The selfie I sent my parents before I handed in my PhD thesis.

Being a scientist has helped me to fulfill my dreams of seeing more of the world (I’ve been to over 30 countries now) while doing valuable and interesting research, but it has also been undeniably hard – both the science and the moving. Starting life in a new country requires a lot of patience, resourcefulness, and determination. Skills which, conveniently enough, I have also found essential in science.

A sign I saw at last April's March for Science, in front of Big Ben, London.

A sign I saw at last April's March for Science, in front of Big Ben, London.

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