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Working life: Dr Donald J. Davidson

by Guest Author on 16 Sep 2015

Dr Donald J. Davidson is an inflammation biologist and MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellow at the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research. Here he tells us about his working life, and why he considers communicating research just as important as doing it.

Career in brief

  • Medical degree, followed by two years as a lab technician
  • Self-funded part-time PhD in cystic fibrosis pathogenesis at the MRC Human Genetics Unit
  • Four research fellowships, including four years in Canada

I never really mapped out my career. The main thing that brought me into science was a natural curiosity – I always want to know how things work. Planning is important, but it helps to be flexible and I’ve taken opportunities as they’ve arisen, even if they’ve seemed a little unconventional at the time. Everyone from my clinical professors to my bank manager thought I was making the wrong choice when I gave up my clinical career, but it was the correct decision.

Despite my clinical training I follow a non-clinical scientist route now. I’d really enjoyed science at school, but I felt that I should do medicine. There was lots of rote learning, I didn’t enjoy the way the course was taught, and ultimately I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor, so I left medicine when I graduated in 1992. I did return briefly to complete my clinical training in order to get a clinician scientist post – but by then I had discovered medical research science!

I’ve always been a visual thinker. I enjoyed art at school and drew cartoons and caricatures in my spare time. When I was a medical student I discovered that I could remember disease signs and symptoms far more easily if I drew a caricature of someone with the disease. I realised that illustrations have a power to teach and engage an audience in a way that is quite different from text or lectures.

After graduating I weighed up whether to go into science or art. I did a bit of both and the decision was made for me when I got the chance to be a summer student at the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh. I was bitten by the bug. I loved lab work and the social dynamics of working in a lab – it was much less hierarchical than in medicine. I carved out a niche for myself, and got a two–year technician job on a project studying cystic fibrosis, which gave me an excellent core training in basic research skills.

One of the things I love most about my job is the opportunity to follow your nose. There are so many opportunities to develop your interests outside of bench science, as well as in the core research – you just have to take them. I took part in the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which matches a scientist to a parliamentarian for job shadowing, judge in the wonderful Debating Matters schools competition, and have become increasingly involved in public engagement in schools and at science festivals in the past few years. The public engagement work has allowed me to marry up my love of science and my passion for visual arts.

I did my PhD in lung disease part-time – and self-funded – at the MRC Human Genetics Unit over five years while I was employed as a clinician scientist. That was when I became interested in the antimicrobial, or host defence, peptides that I work on now. These are naturally occurring antimicrobial agents that work both directly and indirectly: they can both kill bacteria and viruses, and alter the way that the body responds to inflammation or infection to enhance the removal of the threat.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a big problem right now. We hope to be able to use these peptides to develop drugs that not only kill bacteria but also enhance the body’s ability to clear the infection. Or we might be able to combine them with defunct antibiotics to make them useful again.

I hope that our research leads to new treatments, but I think it’s just as important to understand the basic biology of how these peptides work. You never know which finding in basic research is going to be the stepping stone for another person to make the next important discovery – we shouldn’t underestimate that.

Communicating science is just as important to me as the research itself. I feel that if we haven’t had a proper dialogue between the scientific community and the rest of the population – from schoolchildren to policymakers – then we’re only doing half of our job. It’s not just about explaining the details of what we do, but also why we do it and listening to what other people think we should be doing. I think everyone should have some understanding of the scientific process, to help them navigate the information-dense world that we live in.

I enjoy doing science communication work in primary schools. It grew out of a desire for my own primary-age children to have more science in their schooling, so I went to their school to run activities and found that I really enjoyed it. In one module we sample bacteria from kids’ desks, the backs of their ears, or wherever, and take the samples back to the lab to culture. It’s fabulous seeing the children’s excitement and answering the brilliant questions they come up with, even at an early age.

This is the kind of job where there is always much more to do than you can possibly get through. I think it’s a case of prioritising what matters to you and choosing what to do at any point in time. I recognise that as scientists we’re judged primarily on our publications and grants, but it’s very important to me that I maximise opportunities outside lab work too.

I’m based much more in the office than in the lab now. I’m primarily reading, writing, planning, directing and communicating the research that we do. At the moment that means I’m focused on writing up about half a dozen papers and some grant applications. Then there’s teaching, supervising, meetings with students and staff… Emails are a core part of it – I spend a lot of time at my computer, but is it important to see what the team are doing at the bench too!

As told to Katherine Nightingale.

Find Donald at his website, university profile page and Twitter account.

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