Science Careers: Interview with Nikki Carter
Name: Nikki Carter
Current employer: Cubist Pharmaceuticals
Job title: Research Associate
Science Career: Biological Technician
Time working in this field: 12.5 years
How would you describe what you do on a typical day to a student?
I am a drug discoverer, so my job is to help find the next generation of antibiotics. Most of my day is spent in the lab running Minimal Inhibitory Concentration assays or MICs for short. What is an MIC assay? Chemists make compounds that could be the next new antibiotic and pass them along to me for testing against some really serious and potentially dangerous bacteria. To test these compounds, I make serial dilutions and add different bacterial strains to them. The bacteria grow overnight, and I look at the results the next morning. The best compounds are those that kill the bacteria using the smallest amount of compound possible—this is what it means to be potent. Some of the bacteria we are trying to make antibiotics for are ones that are found in hospitals that are resistant to current antibiotics; these are sometimes called Superbugs. Finding new ways to treat resistant bacteria, or Superbugs, is really important.
How did you become interested in this area of science/engineering?
Growing up, my dad had many illnesses, like cancer, heart disease, and infections, just to name a few. He spent a lot of time in the hospital, and I spent a lot of time there visiting him. At first I thought I wanted to be a nurse, and I tried that for a while. Throughout high school and college, I worked as a nurse's aide at a nursing home. While it was very rewarding and I loved it, it wasn't my 'dream' job, but I knew I wanted my career to have a focus in medicine. I wanted to help save lives. In thinking about my future, I realized two things: (1) How much I loved the hands-on aspect of my science lab classes; and, (2) How my Dad relied on medicines every day to keep his body functioning properly. So I decided to pursue a lab-based career.
My first job was a lab technician, and I could have been assigned anywhere, but my boss picked me to work in the microbiology group, which looked at the sterility of medical devices. I have been in microbiology ever since. Over the years, I have had several different jobs in the field, but all of them have been related to bacteria and medicine in some way. Some of the things I have worked on include medical devices used in hospitals every day and medicines that sick people take to help them get better. It's the same things that researchers did 50+ years ago in discovering and developing the medicines that helped my dad. Now I can pay it forward and help someone else's dad, mom, or other family member.
How would you describe your current work environment to a student?
I spend about 75% of my time in the lab running experiments and about 25% of my time at my desk analyzing data. When I am in the lab, I do most of my work in a biological safety cabinet (BSC). The BSC helps keep everything I am working on sterile and keeps me safe from the bacteria. Safety is a top priority, so in the lab it is important that I wear my lab coat, safety glasses, and gloves. After I analyze the data, I share it with others on my project team. This helps in moving the project forward and helps us reach our goal of developing new antibiotics. In addition, I also read scientific papers to stay informed on what others folks in the science community are working on. When I am not in the lab or analyzing data, I like to volunteer in the community in order to help get young folks excited about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
What did you study in high school, under grad, graduate school?
In high school, I took several general science courses, including Earth science, chemistry, biology and physics. As a suggestion from my guidance counselor, I took extra science courses as electives because this was something that colleges looked favorably on. All the science in high school, led me to realize that I preferred biology courses, so in college I was able to focus more with classes like immunology, microbiology, genetics, pharmacology, and virology. In college, I took advantage of study groups and tutors to help me understand my classes better. I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew it was going to be something in human health/medicine. When I first started thinking about a career, I thought I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse. Eventually I realized the lab was the place for me.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?
I love the hands-on aspect of things. I'm always doing something in the lab that keeps me happy and excited about my job. I know I would not be happy just sitting at my desk eight hours a day. I also love the people I work with. They are great to have around to talk to and bounce ideas off of. Science is definitely a place where teamwork, communication, and collaboration are key. If I could change anything, it would be to have bacteria grow faster in the lab so I could run more experiments and antibiotic discovery could happen faster. My job requires me to be patient while bacteria grow and results become evident.
What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?
There are several key characteristics that are important in doing lab-based work: 1) Attention to detail; 2) Ability to think critically and ask a lot of questions; 3) Communicate well with others; 4) Work well in a team; science and drug discovery are very collaborative.
What was a project that you have worked on that you found particularly interesting?
Not so much a project, but bacteria themselves are very interesting. They are single-celled organisms that can be both good and bad. We have bacteria in our body—actually the number of bacterial cells outnumber the number of human cells—but these cells live together usually in peace. Bacterial cells help us to digest and breakdown food, but there are some bad bacteria that cause diseases. They are also really smart. They have the ability to quickly evolve and adapt to their surroundings, including becoming drug resistant to avoid being killed by antibiotics.
What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field in terms of coursework and extracurricular activities?
Taking as many science courses as you can will help you figure out what science you are most passionate about, and then you can focus more, especially in college. Network with friends and teachers and associate yourself with others that have similar interests. Join science clubs at school. If you can find an internship in your field, that would be awesome! Learning in school is actually really different than doing something as a job; hands-on experience gives you better insight to what really happens in any job.
Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?
My advice would be to get more involved in science extracurricular activities in school. I took classes and participated in study group sessions, but I never got involved in any of the clubs. If you don't have access to clubs you could join a group online or choose to do a science fair project on your own. I would also recommend getting an internship or job related to your potential profession. I was a nurse's aide all through high school and college, and while I wouldn't give up having had that experience, it taught me that nursing wasn't what I wanted to do for my career.
Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?
I don't think people understand what it's like to work in a lab. We get caught up a lot in watching science-related TV shows and movies, and what is portrayed isn't real. The experiments we run in drug discovery, for example, take days to get the results when on TV they have an answer in 10 minutes. Drug discovery itself is challenging. From idea to market, it can take 12-15 years on average. That's a lot of asking questions, running experiments, and collecting and analyzing data.
Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?
I don't think I ever participated in science fairs. The past few years I have gotten involved in science fairs as a judge for Massachusetts High School students. It has been a very cool and rewarding experience. Students have had very creative projects with lots of innovative and detailed science.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to run and play sports like softball and golf. I love hanging out with my husband and English bulldog, Wilma.