A new piece of research that takes me back some 12 years has just come across my desk. It involves liquid crystals, the basis for many current display technologies, which in pharmaceutical R&D are now being applied to the understanding of biological systems. It appears that the unique ability of liquid crystals to amplify small spatial changes by neighbouring molecules is being used for sensor applications in genetic analysis. These materials formed the basis for my Ph.D. at Reading University a dozen years ago, but the application was much more traditional. I investigated liquid crystals' optical properties and amplification abilities for potential high-density data storage applications.
I chose to do a Ph.D. because I enjoyed physics (still do...), and it seemed the natural career progression. Little did I know, while focussing on my liquid crystals, that the experience and expertise I was amassing (and not just in terms of the scientific knowledge) would become so important in my subsequent career. But physics is a truly fundamental science, and the ability of physicists to grasp and understand a wide variety of phenomena puts us in demand in more scientific and industrial settings than any other scientist. Physics training instils a certain degree of scientific inquisitiveness that makes us constantly question what is being presented to ensure an accurate picture. This makes physicists, more than any other scientists, sceptical; we often want to see it for ourselves before we truly believe it. But this characteristic, if used in the right way, can be a powerful tool--especially today, when interdisciplinary skills are so important to industry as a whole.
Having completed my Ph.D., I moved to the GEC Marconi Research Centre, a real haven for physicists. I worked in microsystems technology, making use of developments in the electronic semiconductor industry. We built devices to perform different functions, such as manipulating fluids on a microscopic level, as in ink jet printers, for example. My experience in this technology developed, but the day came when I started to consider whether it could be applied to industries outside the core GEC Marconi business areas. So, itchy feet led me to investigate the pharmaceutical industry, which in the last decade has experienced a great drive towards new technologies.
As I talked to people at conferences, it became apparent that the expertise I had been developing in microfluidics at GEC was now being applied in the pharmaceutical industry. Being proactive--a key requirement when looking for new opportunities--I contacted some of the people I had met and visited GlaxoWellcome to meet with the person (a fellow physicist) who would later become my manager. We discussed how microsystems technology would be beneficial to GlaxoWellcome, and I was able to demonstrate the skills I had learned in this area while at GEC. Through this contact I became aware of a newly forming group that would look at new and emerging technologies. I applied and was pleased to be offered a job.
As head of the new group, which was to provide technical consultancy, feasibility work, and technology assessment, I had to use my skills as a physicist to see how I could add value to the process of discovering and developing new chemical entities that could eventually become new drugs. Naturally, for me this started with applying microsystems to various areas of the company. This included developing technologies such as the 'lab on a chip'--the ability to perform conventional processes, such as chemical synthesis, on a micro scale. But that was not all. I found, very quickly, that the general skills I had developed as a physicist were also called upon for consultancy work. People in the company were very open to new ideas. One team wanted to know how physics could help in the delivery of small droplets of liquid from inhalers for asthma sufferers. Another group wanted to know the effects of the evaporation of liquids from shallow well receptacles used in analysis, whose volumes are in the (l range (10-9m3); and yet another group, how mathematical techniques could be used to decipher chemical compositions from mass spectrometry data. The sheer variety of projects that I get involved in, using many aspects of my original training, brings the biggest professional rewards to my work.
It isn't always plain sailing, though. Representing the minority science amongst a preponderance of chemists and biologists can be difficult. You have to be a good negotiator when trying to convince people of your worth. And you sometimes get it wrong; after all, some of the people you deal with have long experience in the industry, which can sometimes be more valuable than your scientific expertise. But let's face it, theories always need to be challenged, and we physicists are quite good at doing that--so handling this type of situation is probably routine for most of us!
Being in the minority can sometimes mean being alone in the field. This means getting up to speed (very quickly) with things that you are not familiar with, and it puts great pressure on your skills. But the rewards can be great, not only in terms of accomplishment, but in remuneration as well. The pharmaceutical industry is extremely buoyant at present and is going through technical and scientific developments that require the many diverse talents of physicists. It is also a good time to be entrepreneurial, as indicated by the large numbers of new start-up companies in this sector.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that you don't have to work for a pharmaceutical firm like GlaxoSmithKline (formerly Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham) to contribute to this field. Although I work at one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, we are a small cog in an industry that also comprises suppliers of instrumentation and consumables, as well as consultancy, biotechnology, and modelling companies, many of which offer opportunities for physicists. So if you like the idea of being a small, but unusual, fish in a very large pond, this industrial sector could well provide your niche.