Biochemistry sounds like a complicated subject, but simply studying the chemical components of the body can have a huge impact on the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of diseases a patient may have. I’m Tom, a first year STP student specialising in Clinical Biochemistry. I joined the STP fresh out of my undergraduate degree. Before starting university, I didn’t have a career plan set in mind, I just wanted to do what I enjoyed most through my A-levels which was biology and chemistry. And now I’m very fortunate to be on a programme where I can use my knowledge to improve patients’ lives.
What is the role of a clinical biochemist?
To the public, not much is known about the work performed in a biochemistry lab. Patients that come into a hospital may have a blood sample taken, and some time later they’ll get their results back, with little knowledge about the processes that have occurred between these points in order to produce these results. But the steps in between depend upon the work of clinical biochemists and a wide range of laboratory staff, each having a crucial role in the analysis of a sample. Biochemical analysis has been crucial in the detection and treatment of diseases, including diabetes, inherited disorders/diseases, deficiencies, cancers, and many other illnesses.
In addition to routine work, a clinical biochemist also has a significant role in the development and validation of new tests being introduced in the department. This ensures that the services available in the laboratory are of the highest standard and will ensure the most accurate clinical outcomes to the patient. A clinical biochemist may also partake in research in the department, with STP students undertaking a research project in years 2 and 3. I’ll be planning mine in less than a years’ time.
It is important to know that STP clinical biochemistry specialism is more lab based and therefore has less patient interaction in comparison to other STP specialities, so bear this in mind when deciding if it is the specialism for you.
How I got onto the programme
My pathway onto the programme went smoother than I’d imagined. I first heard of the STP while I was on my placement year working at a chemical pathology lab at the University Hospitals of Leicester. I was able to get a detailed and in-depth view into the work of a clinical biochemist and learn from the current STP students specialising in clinical biochemistry. Shadowing their day-to-day roles and being given my own projects to work on taught me important clinical and research skills needed to be a successful biochemist. Having this experience within the department was very eye-opening, and I would highly recommend anyone wanting to apply to the programme to get some experience in an NHS lab, as it will be highly invaluable.
After I finished my placement year, I decided to apply to the programme during my final year of study. The application process was tough, and initially it felt very overwhelming. Many applicants have been applying multiple times to get onto the programme, with many successful applicants already having an MSc or even a PhD. I didn’t have the highest hopes and had different back-up options to follow if I didn’t get it. However, the experience I’d gained pulled me forward, and I still remember the exact moment when I found out I’d gotten my place only a few hours after I finished my interview. I was over the moon to say the least, and it still sometimes doesn’t quite feel real even now after I’ve started.
What does a day look like as a trainee biochemist?
Currently most of the day-to-day work revolves around learning competencies, while also juggling learning the university content. Some of the competencies I’ve worked towards so far include receiving, labelling, and storing samples, and more recently moving onto analysing the samples myself, using a wide range of techniques such as flow cytometry, mass spectrometry, and many more. It’s also important to learn about how these analysers work to help with trouble shooting and maintenance, and how to read and report the results of the test.
This image shows an example of some samples received in the labs. Different samples require blood to be stored differently depending on the test. This is indicated with the different colour caps. The purple tube can be used for a full blood count, measuring the amount of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets that are present in the blood. The green tube is for serum samples, that allows us to measure analytes like urea and electrolytes, while the blue tube is used to screen the coagulation of a blood sample (the colours may vary in different hospitals!). These tests allow us to pick up abnormalities in a patient’s blood sample, and can assist with the diagnosis of a wide range of diseases. This has a big impact on patient outcomes, making the work of a biochemist vital for the NHS.