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Career: Biological research

Sarah Heaton tells us what it's like to work in nutritional science

Working in biological research is a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. I like the fact that my work can be applied to real life situations and it is exciting to think that I am doing things that nobody has ever done before. I am free to come up with my own ideas and I control the direction of my research, something that is not possible with many jobs. It can be difficult when things do not go to plan and if experiments do not give the expected results, but it is challenging to work out why not. These feelings are all part of research and when something works, it's fantastic!

As part of my PhD I am setting up a model for the transfer of iron from mother to foetus during pregnancy. The hope is that when more is understood about this process, we will be able to prevent pregnant women from becoming anaemic; a common problem that is harmful for mother and baby alike.

Most days involve planning and carrying out experiments but there is no typical day that I can describe. Admittedly some go slowly, while I wait for a piece of equipment to become available or for an experiment to finish. Because I work with living things, it is important to be flexible, and my working hours can vary and sometimes include weekends.

My work comes under the heading of nutrigenomics, which is concerned with the relationship between food and our health. In trying to understand this complex relationship, we examine things called gene expression, protein translation and metabolic change in response to foods, using cutting-edge technologies developed as a result of the human genome project (see box, right).

We know that the foods we eat have a range of different biological effects; for example, people who eat a lot of foods containing polyphenols (e.g. apples and onions) are much less likely to develop certain types of cancer. Understanding these interactions and translating science into advice for healthy living is really difficult, but also very important.

In senior school I enjoyed science, particularly biology, but it was while I was doing my A-levels in biology, chemistry and mathematics that my interest in human health and disease really developed. I did my degree in molecular biology and genetics at the University of East Anglia, which I really enjoyed. However, my introduction to research was through a third-year project; after that adventure, I was keen to continue with research. I applied for a PhD at the Institute of Food Research, and I have been working on my PhD for almost 18 months.

There are lots of routes into nutrigenomics. You might, for example, go directly into nutritional science. Because of the wealth of data generated by computational skills they are in great demand - mathematicians and computer modellers, for example. Many clinicians are interested in the effects of diet on specific diseases, and a clinical route into this research is also popular. Take your pick!

What is the human genome project?

The idea behind the human genome project was to answer some of the questions that surround human DNA. It took place between 1990 and 2003 and was carried out by the US Department of Energy and the National Human Genome Research Institute. It resulted in the full completion of the human genome sequence in April last year: a list of approximately 25,000 genes. The findings will continue to be useful for many years in addressing the legal, ethical and social issues that DNA and its uses excites. Have a look at the article on stem cells and cloning on pages 10 and 11 for more information.

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