Time for the third instalment of Meet the YCG! This time round we are delighted to introduce Natalie Tatum! Natalie is our Biological Structures Group (BSG) representative and is the first in a mini series to introduce our group reps. Just a reminder that Meet the YCG is a weekly series of interviews with YCG members starting with the committee.
Post-doctoral research associate at Newcastle University, in the structural biology team of the Cancer Drug Discovery group at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research
What do you currently research?
The structural biology team in Cancer Drug Discovery provide protein production, crystallography and assay development for ongoing projects. In practice this means we produce protein for crystallisation and assay, often screening tens of constructs at least to optimise for various purposes, we have a variety of tagging systems at our disposal for use, and we have access to SPR, ITC, and NMR for screening in addition to building assays on a variety of fluorescence-based formats. I’m currently the only researcher on the biophysics side of my target project, so I’m the one doing it all from cloning through to crystallisation and beyond.
What is your favourite thing about being a crystallographer?
I really relish the challenges. Protein crystallography is regularly described as a dark art, and particularly for a novel protein, it can be months or years of banging your head against thousands upon thousands of conditions and constructs until you find The One. Sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes it’s just hard graft, but the pay off – seeing even optimisable crystal hits in one of your trays – it makes every protein prep worth the effort.
Who, or what, inspires you to do science?
I was always scientifically inclined, but it wasn’t really until I was late in my undergraduate degree that I got a taste of research science and discovered a passion for it. It suits my problem solving nature and curiosity. I had few real-life scientific role models growing up, however, and so I had to make do with fictional ones: Dana Scully and Sam Carter. When I became a researcher and started to interact with other scientists – particularly female scientists – out there, in the real world, I found an inspiring community.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to anyone starting out in scientific research?
I think there are two, but they’re quite linked: first, give it a go. I had no idea what a research scientist did on a day to day basis, or what that life even looked like, so I think the important thing is to get stuck in and try it out – a summer project, an MSc, etc.; but secondly, make sure you really want to do it. Scientific research is difficult, often the rewarding moments can be sparse and seem so distant, and often experiments fail. You have to learn to be resilient, optimistic, and above all, you have to keep your head about you. Bad days happen, so you have to be able to have a cup of tea, go home and sleep, do whatever it requires for you to get back on the work-horse tomorrow.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I try to keep a good work-life balance and protect my weekends as much as possible from the intrusions of work; obviously it can be unavoidable to put in some working hours in the evenings and weekends, but generally speaking I try to get everything done in my normal working hours, and I rely heavily on to-do lists and weekly goals to stay on track. I’m also quite introverted and often need the time to re-charge, so outside of work I enjoy swimming or running at the gym, I read voraciously – particularly science fiction but I try to stay away from science non-fiction (with mixed success) – and of course spend quality time in the cinema or watching Netflix. I find that really enjoying my free time helps me be more focused when I’m working and makes me a happier and more productive person, so I value proper boundaries in my work-life balance.