Research assistant

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Anna, 24

What does a research assistant do?

Anna works as part of a research team in a laboratory. She says, "We all have separate parts of a project to deal with, but together we're developing something. At the moment we're working on developing a molecular filter. The kind of thing that can pull something selectively out of complex liquid mixtures; like blood for example." Her small part of the project is measuring the interaction energy of a protein and its receptor.

What does a typical working day involve?

Projects go in cycles, and depending on what stage the project is at Anna does very different work. The first stage is an extensive literature search, "so that you've got a good background knowledge on how things are done. That way you design your experiment with the most chance of getting good results," she explains. The next stage is designing the experiment, and then carrying out the experiment in the lab. "You conduct the research," she says, "but your supervisor guides you. Then there is the data analysis side, which usually takes longer than the actual experiment. You try to figure out what sort of story the data tells."

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

"I think you have to be able to accept that science isn't something that happens very quickly, and you also have to accept that sometimes experiments don't work," says Anna. She explains that you need patience and the ability to be able to learn from your mistakes.

Knowledge of a lab is necessary as a starting point but Anna says that, "The truth is, the project I'm working on now, I had to learn from everything from scratch. As a research assistant, you're researching. You're not doing established things, you're doing experimental things."

How did you become a research assistant?

"Basically it happened last year, I was working as a waitress and at a bookshop and I found that those jobs were purely exchanging time for money. I went to one of my Science lecturers and said, "I'm almost a chemist, how do I go about getting work in this field?" and she said, "Well you can work for me!"

What are some of the pros and cons of the job?

"The good thing is that you're getting paid to enhance your own education. Everything is starting from scratch and time goes into learning how to do things and for anyone who enjoys problem solving there is the thrill of when you actually crack something, figure out what the data is saying.

"I guess the downside is the fact that you do work alone a lot of the time. It's not a job where you have a lot of interaction with other people; you can spend a whole day on your own in a lab."

What are your goals for the future, what do you want to achieve next?

Anna is considering career paths, and there are many different options for a lab assistant. She says, "I would like to be a science writer, work for somewhere like New Scientist. Deal with the philosophy of science. Or work helping to set up clean water supplies after disasters."

Are there any tips for getting a job as a research assistant?

Don't be shy to ask for work from teachers, because there are employment opportunities.

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).