Siobhan Cashman, a senior R&D scientist at BD
Siobhán Cashman, a senior scientist in the reagents and assays R&D team in BD. Image: BD

‘Greater communication between scientists and the public is needed’

8 May 2018

What do researchers actually do? The role of the researcher is, arguably, not very well understood by the general public. We spoke to Siobhán Cashman of BD about what her day-to-day work entails.

These are, by and large, strange times we are living in – but particularly so if you’re a scientist.

The scourge of fake news has landed at the feet of scientists everywhere who are having to deal with the negative effects of misinformation, be it about the efficacy of vaccines or the threat of climate change.

Demystifying science is, now more than ever, of paramount importance, and this starts with strengthening the lines of communication between the general public and scientists, according to Siobhán Cashman, a senior scientist at the reagents and assays R&D team at BD.

We spoke to her about her work with BD, and her long and impressive career in science, which has taken her from Cork to Basel to Cincinnati to Oxford.

What is your role within BD?

I’m a senior scientist in the reagents and assays R&D team in BD.

What education and/or other positions led you to the role you have now?

I first studied microbiology at University College Cork (UCC). Three years into my degree, I put my university place on hold and undertook a studentship with a global pharmaceutical company in Basel, Switzerland. After my year working abroad, I returned to UCC, certain in the knowledge I wanted to pursue a career in research.

I completed my degree and began a PhD in innate immunology. Following my PhD, I moved to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, USA, where my postdoctoral research investigated the immune response to cancer.

I returned to Ireland to work with the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in UCC as an education and outreach officer to promote STEM in primary schools.

However, I began to miss research, so I decided to return to postdoctoral work at the University of Oxford to study the immune response to viral infections.

After almost four years in Oxford, the opportunity arose to join BD as a member of the reagents and assays R&D team, a role where I knew my previous research experience would be hugely beneficial.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

As part of the reagents and assays R&D team, we are responsible for designing new tests and solutions for research and clinical labs. I primarily help to develop new clinical tests for blood disorders.

In diseases such as cancers or viral infections, a patient’s blood profile changes where their white blood cells present differently. In leukaemia, lymphoma or viral infections, key characteristics of the patient’s white blood cells are altered. Using a blood sample, we can measure the patient’s white blood cells using an instrument called a ‘flow cytometer’, which allows for rapid screening and diagnosis.

Accurately identifying which cancers or infections a patient has may help to stratify their treatment plan and, ultimately, improve their outcome.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day for you?

My team is part of a larger reagents and assay R&D team mainly based in California, so good communication is essential.

A typical day for me begins at 8.15am, where I start the day by checking emails, followed by a team meeting where we discuss the work that will be done for the day.

Samples arrive on site in the morning and are processed immediately. In the afternoon, we collate and analyse the data from the morning experiments and record the findings for discussion and future direction.

Late afternoon is set aside for meetings with our American colleagues so we can collaboratively ensure our clinical customers are given the best possible solutions to improve patient diagnostics.

What skills and tools do you use on a daily basis?

Data analysis plays a big role in my job. Researching and developing new reagents and assays for clinical use is our primary function. As such, we need to rigorously test assays to ensure that all results, and therefore products, meet the highest medical standards.

We need to be highly organised in planning and executing experiments. To ensure that BD remains a leader in scientific innovation, it is essential to keep abreast of the latest research findings in immunology and flow cytometry by reading scientific journals and participating in scientific and clinical meetings.

What applications do you foresee for this research?

The development of new assays using the flow cytometry technology will have a dramatic effect on patient lives. From more reliable diagnosis to speedier acquisition of results, the assays I work on translate directly to improving patient outcome and wellbeing, so I feel immensely proud to be involved in this process.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

I think that, as opposed to misconceptions, there is generally a lack of knowledge of what exactly happens in research. Science needs to be demystified.

Many scientific discoveries are shrouded in mystery as science has developed its own language, preventing non-scientists from fully understanding the impact research makes to the diagnosis of diseases and patients’ lives. Greater communication between scientists and the public is needed.

When you first started work as a researcher, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

Meticulous record-keeping. It is very easy to say I’ll remember what I did or changed in a particular experiment but, in six months’ time when you reanalyse an experiment, unless you carefully recorded everything you originally did, the work could have all been for nothing.

What do you enjoy most about your career in research?

I enjoy working in research as it means you are continually developing more innovative solutions to problems the scientific community and clinical labs experience. I feel, to work to my fullest potential, I need to be challenged by my work and that is something that a career in research provides.

Previously, I worked in fundamental research where findings could take 10 to 15 years before any benefit is seen for the patient.

Working for BD, my research is much closer to making a tangible difference to patients’ lives. By developing clinical assays that make diagnosis quicker, easier and more accurate, patient outcomes can be improved.

Are you a PhD researcher? Can you explain your work in three minutes of engaging chat? Then you could be our next Researchfest champion. Find out how to apply here.

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