Dr Ann Harvey, arthritis researcher
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’m a researcher who works in biomedical imaging at Cardiff University School of Medicine. In one of my projects, I’m using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study patients with osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative joint disease. I’m trying to understand why some patients with osteoarthritis continue to suffer pain after they’ve had surgery to replace the diseased joint (eg after knee replacement) but others don’t.
My research combines physics, maths, biology and medicine, and I work with several university departments and as part of the Arthritis Research UK Biomechanics and Bioengineering Centre of Excellence in Cardiff.
What skills do you use in your work?
I use a lot of the biology that I learned as a student, and I’ve had to learn a lot more since starting this job. I do quite a lot of basic computer programming to analyse our MRI images. I use maths on a daily basis, but it’s probably mostly A-level standard. Some of my colleagues use much more advanced maths.
What does a typical day entail?
It varies. After we’ve designed and performed an experiment, I spend most of my time analysing bulky datasets. I often discuss data and results with colleagues and students in our group, and interact with clinicians and patients when appropriate. We also attend various scientific meetings and seminars throughout the week.
What are the most challenging and satisfying things about your job?
Occasionally, the pace of research can be frustrating, especially if you’re like me and want everything to happen quickly. Sometimes my enthusiasm gets me sidetracked, so there can be a long time between having an idea and performing the experiments.
I love the intellectual challenge of trying to figure out what research has already been done and what we still don’t know, and then designing an experiment to find out more. You can feel a bit lost or isolated sometimes, because you don’t always know how to find the answers, but that’s partly why it’s so exciting. You’re doing something that no one has ever done before, which could make a difference to people’s health in the future. I also love working as part of a team with lots of different people.
What did you want to be at school?
A professional footballer, although I’ve always loved science too! I’ve been lucky to find ways of combining my passions. For example, in my DPhil I used MRI to investigate anterior cruciate ligament injuries, knee damage that typically happens while playing sport.
International Baccalaureate, including higher-level chemistry, biology and German and maths methods, UK (2000).
BA, psychology with physiology, University of Oxford (2004).
MSc, computing (conversion course), Oxford Brookes University (2005).
DPhil, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford (2009).
Part-time football coaching and statistical analysis for Manchester United Soccer School.
Postdoctoral researcher, University of Oxford (2009–10).
Cardiff Academic Fellow, Cardiff University (2010–).
Salary guide (2017)
Postdoctoral researcher: £29,000–£35,000 (Prospects).
Essential subjects (2017)
For physiology, you will generally need two sciences at A level. For psychology, a few courses ask for one of biology, chemistry, maths and physics (‘Informed Choices’).
How do you become a research scientist?
The standard path to becoming a research scientist involves doing science A levels, then a science-based degree. Today you’re then generally expected to go on to do a Master’s degree, which can be research-based (in a lab or in the field) or taught (similar to an undergraduate degree). After this you will then need to do a PhD – a three- or four-year research project.
You will then be able to apply for postdoctoral research roles, often in universities. Some people will do a number of these roles for a few years, before securing a permanent job as a researcher in a university. This will usually involve lecturing students alongside your own research.
After your PhD you could also be a researcher for organisations other than universities, such as pharmaceutical or engineering companies, depending on your area of expertise. Every stage of the ladder towards becoming a research scientist is competitive, but if you’re passionate about your subject and prepared to work hard, it is a rewarding and fascinating career path. Find out more.