I work for... Mad about the boffins

I Work For...: Jennie Wood is PA to Dr Graham Currie, research director of Marie Curie Cancer Care
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The Independent Culture
I joined Marie Curie Research Institute in June 1991, having previously worked for a corporate hospitality company which was hit badly by the recession and the Gulf War. Being over age 40 at a time when ageism was at its height, I was told by many agencies that they had nothing for me so I felt lucky to be sent here for interview.

I hadn't heard of the Marie Curie Research Institute, but it's so hidden away within National Trust woodland near Oxted in Surrey that many people don't know that it's here - from my office window there's a 20-mile horizon of pure country. The nature appealed to me enormously as I sat outside the building waiting for my interview, but I was also struck by the scientists around me - dressed in casual clothes in bizarre colours, baggy shorts and T-shirts, they looked so different from the suit brigade. I would never have identified Dr Currie as the head of an Institute.

Scientists are by nature very individual people, which is one reason why I very much enjoy working with them. Of course, they can be difficult but you soon learn to recognise when they are absorbed in working out a problem. I think that generally we all work very well together, for there's no segregation between the scientists and the rest of the staff. The one man who likes to act the part of a mad scientist isn't very convincing. Although my role was explained straight away it has taken time to learn about cancer research and the biochemistry involved.

Occasionally, I will go in to have a look at something of interest, say in the laser lab of the molecular motors group - but lacking a scientific brain, it's very, very hard to take in. Science is very computer orientated and the technology has improved no end since I joined the charity, to such an extent that computer-linked microscopes are the norm.

Researchers don't know what they are going to find when they begin their experiments, it's more a question of trying to find a door that's open. Sometimes I see the scientists looking very depressed because after working on something for three weeks there's still no result. On the other hand we all get excited by a breakthrough and discovery because it creates such a buzz in offering other possibilities. Whereas cancer was once talked about as the Big C, these days people are much more open about it. A cancer sufferer usually wants to be aware of all the options available to him or her and I get a lot of calls for Dr Currie on this subject. Often the calls are very sad but I'm a very compassionate person and find it easy to listen. I'm not frightened of cancer myself because I am pretty fatalistic. The important thing is to know how to spot when something's wrong and to be aware of the risks.

I would say that with all the research into malignant melanoma, people here are careful as to how much sun they take in, but otherwise they are no more health conscious than the rest of us. Although Marie Curie operates a no smoking policy indoors, I'm quite horrified by the number of smokers I see outside the building. I also help to run quite the most unhealthy tuck shop and my top priority at the beginning of the day is to get the coffee on since scientists seem to run on caffeine.

Graham and I have adjoining offices and we meet on an ad hoc basis, but he's very good at keeping the diary up to date. He now supervises or oversees the research rather than physically doing it himself and he is also involved in the search for grants and further funding, which generates a lot of paperwork for me. We take in PhD students from the UK and abroad and I have a lot of involvement with them since it's up to me to register them here, arrange accommodation and travel arrangements. I will even chauffeur them to and from the airport. I always make a point of practising a name that's difficult to pronounce. The one sad thing is that most scientists tend to work on three-year contracts , which means that just as one gets close to people they leave. But the brighter side is that people do come back and I still keep in touch with lots of them.

When colleagues see the environment we work in, particularly during the spring, they often say: "When you've got a job vacancy will you let me know?" We use a daffodil as our emblem because it is seen as the symbol of hope, a coming out of darkness into the light, which is what this time of year is about too. We used to sell real flowers on Daffodil Day, but it was too much of a marathon job for the fundraisers, because not only did they have to be kept fresh but they all had to be sold to avoid waste.

Nowadays we use silk flowers, leaving the real daffodils to remain unpicked in the Field of Hope, which was recently planted in Oxted by friends of the Institute.

Interview by Katie Sampson