Having left school as a 17-year-old with dyslexia I was not really ready to think about what sort of career I wanted to follow and got a job within retail while I tried to figure it all out.
When I was 19, I popped my head into the Army Careers office and before I could blink, I was square bashing at Keogh Barracks as a Private Soldier within the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). As a forces child I had always been drawn to the military life but wanted a trade I could continue outside in ‘civvy street’.
I spent 15 years within the RAMC as a multidisciplined biomedical scientist and served in hospital laboratories in the UK, Hong Kong, Brunei and Belize, ranging from a one-man field laboratory to large military hospital laboratories. One day, I was sent to microbiology as sickness cover and was blown away with being a ‘pathogen detective’. I knew from that moment that microbiology was where I wanted to stay. Having specialised in microbiology I completed my MSc and ended up teaching the subject at the Royal Army Medical College in Millbank, London. Whilst there, in 1992, my wife Allison and I had the first of our two children. When my son was 3 months old, I was sent on an unaccompanied posting to Belize, Central America for 6 months. On my return, my son did not know who I was. We decided that I should leave the RAMC and continue my biomedical scientist career in civvy street.
I took a while to adapt to civilian life and worked for short periods of time in laboratories in Jersey and Exeter, before joining the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) as a Senior BMS at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Working for the PHLS was like coming home and not unlike my career within the RAMC. It was at a time when modernisation and transformation within microbiology was the theme, and I thoroughly enjoyed helping the laboratory transform. We implemented molecular biology within virology, replacing much of the cell culture work, although I am still a bit sad that we got rid of the electron microscope. We transformed the bacteriology laboratory with Kiestra automation, one of the first laboratories to do so in the world. I had the opportunity to show the automation to HRH the Duke of Kent and he asked me to summarise the automation before the tour. I told him it was like a sushi bar linked to an internet café for bacterial diagnostics. I worked my way up within the laboratory in Cambridge and became the Laboratory Manager and then the Regional Head of Operations for the East of England.
In 2014, came my biggest (to date) career-defining moment. While in the Head of Technical Services role for the Health Protection Agency (HPA; formerly PHLS), I was contacted by an old army colleague Dr Tim Brooks, who runs the PHE Rare and Imported Pathogen Laboratory (RIPL). He asked me if I would ‘volunteer’ to help with the emerging Ebola crisis in West Africa. I of course said yes, as this was the first time that I could combine my military, microbiology and public health skills. In September that year we set out to build, equip and run three field laboratories within Sierra Leone to assist with the epidemic. The starting point was finding out where could we get water and electricity and where we could go for a wee! The labs were built in an incredibly short time and opened to provide molecular Ebola testing and malaria lateral flow testing within weeks. After construction, my role was to technically lead the labs dotted around Sierra Leone, and I was fortunate enough to travel between the labs. It quickly became apparent that the samples were not getting to the labs fast enough from the Ebola holding centres. These were usually tents and patients spent days in them until they got the test results, a perfect place for viral transmission. We were able to reduce turnaround times from 5–6 days to within 24 hours. My proudest moment! Between 2014 and 2017, I spent around a year in Sierra Leone and for that I was awarded an OBE for services to Public Health by HRH Prince Charles in 2015 and an Honorary Doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University in 2018.
Remember that life is what you make it; follow the dream and smash through those glass ceilings – it’s only out-dated tradition and bureaucracy that put them there!