Real Voices interview: Dr Elizabeth Murchison

Meet Elizabeth, a cancer researcher working in genetics

This interview was conducted in 2010. 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 postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, working on the Cancer Genome Project.

Why did you become a scientist?

I was really interested in biology as I was growing up. I became aware of the Human Genome Project as I was finishing school – I was quite disappointed as it was just ending and I thought there’d be nothing left to do. Then I discovered the world of molecular biology and genetics and realised that the Human Genome Project was just the beginning. After completing a biology degree in Australia, I got my PhD in the USA.

What does your job entail?

Cancer is caused by genetic changes – mutations – in a person’s DNA. For the Cancer Genome Project, we’re looking at genomes taken from cancerous cells to try and work out how these genetic changes could contribute to cancer development and cancer evolution. We take tumour tissue and normal tissue from the host and then sequence the genomes of both. We can’t use a standard human genome to compare the cancer genome to, as individuals are much more different from each other than an individual is from their cancer.

What cancers do you study?

In the Cancer Genome Project, some researchers focus on specific kinds of cancer, others screen ‘their’ gene through lots of different cancers. Most research is on human cancers, but Im the exception: I study transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils and dogs. Transmissible cancers are spread by the physical transfer of cancer cells. They are very unusual and, as I grew up in Tasmania, I wanted to do something to help the Tasmanian devil.

How has sequencing changed over your career?

The progress of sequencing technology is just incredible – it’s moving so quickly that we’re always fighting to stay on top of it. My job is a lot of work and it can be hard to take holidays, but I’m so excited by the new discoveries I come across in the data we generate. It’s a huge thrill to be the first person to see something biological, and there’s real excitement in the air where I work.

Salary guide (2017)

Postdoctoral researchers can be paid anything from £25,000 to £35,000, depending on location and experience (Payscale).

Essential subjects (2017)

To do a biology degree, you will need biology A level and usually one other science, often chemistry (‘Informed Choices’).

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Genes, Genomes and Health’ in January 2010 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Cell biology, Genetics and genomics, Careers, Health, infection and disease
Genes, Genomes and Health
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development