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My job explained: Clinical biochemist

clinical biochemistJanusz Knepil describes how he worked his way up to his current position and explains why everyone in the UK depends on the skills of biochemists to protect their health and lives.

What inspired you to study chemistry?

Magnus Pyke, an eccentric British scientist, giving a lecture on trying to collect sweat so he could measure the amount of vitamins in it. I thought that anyone who had that much fun at work was on to a good thing and that I could use a piece of it.

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

I did five years undergraduate studies in combined chemistry and biochemistry. I then served two years as a probationary clinical biochemist then five years as a qualified clinical biochemist to become an Associate of the Royal College of Pathologists. I eventually built up enough experience to get to Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry. My interest in laboratory matters also kindled an interest in health and safety, so I studied and passed exams to become a chartered member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. I have also become involved in the forensic and toxicological sciences which, in fact, occupy most of my professional time.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I arrive in my (hospital) laboratory generally about 9.10am to miss the worst of peak traffic. I find out if any emergencies developed that affect the patients on whom I will be working. If so, they get my priority attention. I will either go to see the patient or, more often, telephone the doctor in charge to decide the best way to investigate the patient’s illness. I will then get my technical colleagues to carry out a number of mechanised analyses or, if complex or manual analysis is required, carry it out myself. When emergencies have not arisen then I will check through my list of patients and decide on diagnosis and/or further investigation.

There are a group of us who support each other in looking after these patients so that we also have time to carry out research, either on disease processes or on chemical means of investigating disease. My specialty is poisoning and drug addiction – hence the forensic interest. I also have considerable teaching responsibility at undergraduate and postgraduate level. These commitments continue in the day until they are finished, I usually get to leave at about 5.45pm, so I have missed the heavy traffic again!

What's the best thing about your job?

I am paid very well for doing something I love and that earns me a lot of respect in the community. I have always been a frustrated actor and find that I can perform to students and to my colleagues when lecturing. Above all that, however, I know that my work makes a big difference to the well-being of the individual patient and to patients in general. That takes a lot of beating.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are now?

I am a first generation emigrant. My parents arrived, as refugees, with nothing but my sister and the clothes in which they stood. I was born, in an embassy hospital, soon after. My sister and I were always encouraged to pursue education to the maximum. We have never stopped. Although it sounds boring, study can become addictive and even pleasant when it is for a good reason. Certainly, when formal designated training has completed and you are in charge of your own education it becomes much more enjoyable. The greatest challenge of all was in continuing through the bottom (poorer paid) years of my profession with a wife and child to support.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

Determination and an ability to be close to other people’s tragedy without allowing them to overcome you. Although you can be and are sympathetic, too much pity is neither useful nor appreciated but comes over as patronising. It is necessary, therefore to develop a sense of realism without becoming hardened.

What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?

Telephone your local teaching hospital and ask, through your school, to arrange a visit to the laboratory. Biochemistry is the most closely related to chemistry but can sometimes also be involved in haematology and microbiology all of which are within the overall umbrella heading of pathology. Alternatively, the Association of Clinical Biochemists has a very user friendly website that will give information about clinical chemistry as a career.

What difference has chemistry made to society?

My colleagues and I use chemistry every hour of every day to investigate, diagnose and manage disease in people. There is not one person in the UK who has not depended on our skills for their life or health at some time.

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