Should practising biomedical scientists be involved in research?

Biomedical scientists are trained to evaluate evidence, solve problems, think creatively and reflect on their own practice and their department’s performance. In a routine diagnostic setting, these skills are practised daily by all grades of pathology staff. It would be taken for granted that this constitutes good professional practice, but they are also the attributes required to be an effective researcher, as Sarah Pitt explains.

Most biomedical scientists will have consciously applied their talents and abilities to investigative projects when undertaking formal education programmes. It can be easy to forget that thoughts and ideas about your main role in the laboratory could be turned into research. Sharing ideas and findings with colleagues can help you clarify your thinking and also benefit the pathology service.      

Research could include assessing the suitability of a new kit for your department, implementing a new way of organising the work in your laboratory, or introducing a new training programme. In each of these examples, it would be a sensible idea to evaluate the change formally. However, whenever you do this, acknowledge that it is research; design the evaluation carefully and then take the extra time to analyse the data in depth. If you develop an interest in a topic – for example, due to an interesting case in your laboratory or because requests to test for a particular condition have become more common – and read around the subject, this could be formulated into a literature review.

Introducing changes within your department and reviewing the literature in a specific area is good reflective practice – an indication of a professional attitude to work and of course good evidence for the CPD folder. However, once you have done any of these activities, remember that you are a scientist and find a way to share your findings with others. This might be by giving a talk to people in your department or a local discussion group. You could consider presenting it as a poster at a conference, such as the IBMS Congress. Another option would be to write up your work as an article for a discipline-specific journal or a professional magazine, such as Pathology in Practice. Comments and feedback can help you reflect further, develop your understanding and improve your professional practice.

My introduction to research in the work place was from my first laboratory manager as he was training me. He would often suggest trying little experiments to change one of the variables in a test method to see what happened. Admittedly, this involved assays with manual steps that could be changed and was intended to help me understand the underlying principles, so I was not doing novel experiments. However, it encouraged me to think and ask questions at workThis approach is key in troubleshooting and improving all aspects of pathology service delivery, including management and training as well as scientific and technical issues.

We are not all given the opportunity to be involved in big-budget multicentre clinical studies. In my experience, ideas which seem not to have much promise can sometimes turn into successful research projects. The idea for my PhD came from observing the gradual increase in focus on quality management within the diagnostic pathology setting. I began to wonder how that affected the attitude of laboratory staff to their jobs and whether scientific, technical and service delivery standards were objectively improved. Initially, I was thinking of doing a small-scale survey, but, thanks to the support of the person who became my PhD supervisor, it turned into a nationwide study of microbiology departments. Through this I learned about quality measures and occupational psychology, as well as how to design effective questionnaires. I also developed the confidence to approach laboratory managers and other senior people who I did not know, to ask for help with the research.

More recently, the work I have done investigating the possible antimicrobial properties of snail mucus arose from my husband thinking about what protection snails have against infection. We started with testing mucus in straightforward disc-diffusion plate assays. When it became clear that ‘something’ was happening, we followed it up with collaborations and further work. This has taken us into mass spectrometry, high-performance liquid chromatography, genomics and proteomics. The planned next stage is protein crystallography. Given that I started my career as a biomedical scientist in diagnostic virology, the science has certainly taken me to the limits of my understanding.

Learning new skills, sharing ideas, asking for help and supporting colleagues are key professional attributes. They can be enhanced through engaging in research projects. Sometimes, biomedical scientists and other pathology staff can join in a fully-funded ongoing study, even if just for a few months. However, where this is not available, it is often possible to find money for resources to support small projects –  for example, IBMS Research Grants or grants to support laboratory-based education provided by the British Society for Microbial Technology (BSMT). Pursuing ideas in this way helps to keep the brain ticking over and to maintain interest in the job. Undertaking research is good for CPD, excellent for career development and, although very frustrating at times, can also be fun!      

Sarah J Pitt PhD CSci FIBMS SFHEA