STP reflections | Year 2 | Jes

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog a little over a year ago was a reflection on my first year on the STP. Another year has flown by, so I’m taking some time for my annual reflection on everything that has happened on my STP journey in the last 12 months; the good, the bad  and the ugly.

Something I wrote about last year was how much I’d learnt in that year; in more ways than just scientific knowledge- personally and professionally too. One thing I didn’t write about though was the horrible catch-22 realisation that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. And that was pretty scary; how was I ever going to reach the top of this mountain of knowledge when the mountain just keeps growing?! And that’s something I’ve struggled with over the last year, especially when comparing myself to how high my fellow trainees are on this figurative mountain.

But the thing is, no one ever reaches the top of their mountains in science, there is always more to learn. Even after the STP, clinical scientists don’t magically know everything- they’re learning every single day. A clinical scientist once said to me: “The day you stop learning is the day you should retire” and I think that was what hit it home for me. It has been an uphill battle at times, because I’ve spent the majority of my life learning from a syllabus and working to pass exams where the knowledge you’re expected to show isn’t infinite, and just using a certain phrase you memorised from the mark scheme gets you an A. But this perpetual learning journey is something I’ve become ok with and even embraced; after all, most of us started our STP journeys because we enjoy learning. The thought of learning suddenly stopping after I finish the STP is more terrifying than knowing I’ll probably only ever understand a fraction of what there is to know in bioinformatics and genomics. 

And despite its flaws, this is one of the best things about the way the Scientist Training Program works. While we are doing an MSc and learning from a syllabus, we also work in real labs and clinics, with real patients and real life scenarios, where every case is an opportunity to learn something new. We have to think beyond what we’re taught at university and outside of our competencies; asking questions and learning from those around us. The OSFAs assess if we are a safe and competent pair of hands by placing emphasis on knowing “enough” not knowing “everything”. 

This brings me nicely on to another key development point for me this year, as I’ve progressed to becoming somewhat useful in my department (hopefully they will agree!) is to stop comparing myself to other trainees. I think we all do it to some extent and it is really really hard not to. Whenever another trainee talks about a concept I don’t fully understand or a technique or tool I’ve never heard of, it’s so easy to spiral downwards into a negative thought cycle of “why don’t I know this”, “why does everyone know so much more than me” and “I’m so far behind everyone else” etc. etc. But, unsurprisingly, this isn’t productive and using it as another learning opportunity instead is a far better path to take.

I can’t speak for all specialisms, but I know that in bioinformatics, the areas of the specialism you are most exposed to day-to-day to varies massively between locations. So just because someone knows something you don’t (yet) it doesn’t mean you’re not learning equally important, but different things. I have to remind myself that there are 3 years of training, and the order in which we learn things and style in which we are taught is different everywhere so the only person I should be comparing myself to is myself. We’re not being trained to fit into nicely labelled boxes where everyone on the program comes out the other end exactly the same. Like our training, qualified scientists from the STP are versatile, adaptable and multi-disciplinary and I think this is a really good thing.

Finally, I wanted to reflect on some of my favourite experiences over the past year. The majority of these things have come about because I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone, asked for things, and honestly- just worked really hard for them. So I want to take this opportunity to encourage any trainees reading this to ask for the things you want to do because the best opportunities don’t just fall into your lap as part of a standard training path, you have to go out of your way to get them. Also, please do outreach! I enjoy advertising the STP to undergraduates because a) I love my job, and b) I genuinely believe the STP is a great training program and don’t want people with passion and ambition to miss the opportunity to follow the clinical scientist career path just because they didn’t know how to get into it. Also, while you’re a trainee you will have more opportunities to talk to kids about science at science fairs and talks in schools etc – so take them! One of my favourite people in the world is my 10 year old cousin who wants to be a scientist (ok, i’ll overlook that it’s Physics- there’s still time to convince her that Biology is the way forward!) and I love talking to her about what she could be when she grows up and the endless possibilities and seeing the little spark in her eye. But not all children are exposed to science through their families, so I do what I can to start these conversations with other kids too.

So, I think now is probably a good time to wrap things up, I’ve really enjoyed reflecting on the past years experiences and lessons and I’m looking forward to my final year of bigger and better challenges and achievements. Thanks for reading, hopefully my next post will be from my elective placement in sunny Sydney!

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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