Gift Nambela, molecular biologist
Find out more about her scientific career
This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.
What do you do?
I do genetic tests for several conditions, including cystic fibrosis and HIV, at a private pathology company. My job involves extracting and preparing DNA from biological samples for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assays. This process makes lots of copies of the DNA. We can do this manually or by machine: it’s becoming more automated, but it’s important to understand the science behind it.
What does a typical day entail?
I start every day by running a worklist on the computer to see what tests need to be done. Knowing how long each step takes, I can prioritise and plan my day, and fit in all the tasks. Next, I get the samples I need and prepare them. The HPV (human papillomavirus) assay takes longest, so I extract the DNA from those samples first. I regularly crosscheck against the worklist to make sure the right tests are being done on the right samples. I then prepare the DNA for PCR. We test for several conditions here, including chromosomal abnormalities (eg Down’s syndrome), coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis and HIV.
What did you study?
I did A-level biology, chemistry and maths, and I wanted to be a doctor. From a young age, I knew I was going to do something in science: out of nine, I’m the baby of the family, but my brother, who is a computer scientist, gave me the belief that I could achieve anything I wanted to. During my degree, I realised there’s more out there than being a doctor. Although I applied for graduate entry to medical school and was disappointed not to get in, I had back-up plans – it was not the end for me.
I am using the biology I learned from A level and even my O levels, which I did in Zambia. I remember learning standard operating procedures in my first week at university and thinking, ‘Will I ever use these?’ Now I use them every day!
Was it hard to find your current role?
It took a few months to find this job. I saw it on the last day it was open, which gave me about two hours to apply! I wanted it because it related to my degree course, so I knew what it was all about. Also, I’m not a doctor, I can’t help people face-to-face, but I can be the person providing support in the background. I always have in my mind that there is a patient at the end of this.
What would you like to do next?
I hope to become a registered clinical scientist. It will take about six years to qualify for the exam to register with the Health and Care Professions Council. One of my colleagues started out just like me and is now a principal clinical scientist.
A levels: biology, chemistry, maths (2006).
BSc, biomedical science, De Montfort University, Leicester (2010).
Teaching children maths and English, Explore Learning (2010–11).
Molecular biologist, The Doctors Laboratory (2011–).
Salary guide (2017)
Qualified healthcare scientist (genetics) in the NHS will be in the pay bands 5–9: £26,565–£41,787, dependent on experience. Salaries in the private sector vary.
Essential subjects (2017)
Clinical scientists are no longer being recruited directly into the NHS in England. Instead, you can be recruited as a trainee clinical scientist in two ways: the Practitioner Training Programme requires at least two A levels including science. The Scientist Training Programme to become a healthcare scientist requires a 2.1 or better BSc Honours degree in a relevant science.