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Career stories: Alexis Gilbert, graduate trainee

13 Aug, 2012
Alexis Gilbert

Alexis Gilbert. Credit: Wellcome Images

In the run up to A-level and GCSE results days, we’re publishing a series of Q&A case studies from our Big Picture issue on Careers with Biology

Alexis Gilbert followed a degree in psychology with postgraduate medical training. He is now working at the Wellcome Trust as one of its first graduate trainees. Penny Bailey finds out more about his career so far.

What did you study at school?
I did biology, physics, German, and government and politics at A level. In the sixth form, I got a part-time job at the Science Museum as an explainer. I did shows every day I was there: the bubble show, blowing massive bubbles and setting them on fire; hitting people with a sledgehammer to show the dissipation of force; and rocket shows involving lots of hydrogen explosions. I even went on CBBC as a time-travel expert because I’d done A-level physics.

I ended up working there part time for seven years, while I did my degrees, and full time during my gap year before university. I think, in total, 250 000 people came to see my shows in that time. I recommend applying if you’re studying A-level biology. They have a large turnover and recruit quite regularly, about every six months. You just have to be a good communicator, and they can train you in the science. It’s great fun.

Did you go to university?
Yes. I did a psychology degree at University College London first. Then I went to Bart’s [St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London] to do a graduate degree in medicine. Studying medicine was a real privilege, but for me medicine had a real push and pull. The push was the fact there’s a huge amount of decision-making and responsibility that you take on with relatively little information and lots of attached emotion for you and the patient. The pull was the interactions you have with patients, really applying your skills and knowledge to make a diagnosis or treat someone and the daily chance to have an impact on peoples lives.

Which won? The pull or the push?
Both. I left clinical medicine, but I knew there are many ways to use my skills to have this impact and ‘be a doctor’. I decided to pursue what drew me to medicine in the wider context of health policy and systems. Everything is so siloed in education. You’re a biologist, or you study politics, or mathematics. But in research and society generally, most of the really interesting advances come from collaborations and new thinking across disciplines.

I wanted to work in the wider arena of medicine, to work with the Government and influence how doctors (and others in healthcare) work and how people can manage their own health. I didn’t have much experience in health policy, but while I was researching it, I discovered the graduate development programme here at the Wellcome Trust and applied for the policy and funding stream.

I’ve been here a year now. I was in Science Funding for six months, and I’ve been working in the Policy Unit for six months and really loving it. When that finishes, I’ve got another 12 months, working in two other departments. They’re not set in stone; we’re deciding what we’ll do next as we go.

Are you guaranteed a job at the end?
No. It’s a graduate development programme, not a recruitment programme. But if a job comes up and we’re the right person at the time, we’ll be in a strong position.

What is your work-life balance like?
As a doctor you learn to have a good work-life balance because you don’t have a choice if you want to stay sane! I ran the Bart’s and The London Alpine Club at medical school, so every fortnight for a year I organised a trip for 30 doctors and medical students to go climbing in Scotland, the Lakes and Wales. We would make the seven-hour drive on a Friday night, coming back Sunday after a weekend of mountaineering, fun games and not nearly enough sleep. I met my now fiancé at medical school, and now she’s a GP trainee we still go on regular climbing trips with friends we made in the hills and on the wards.

Qualifications

  • A levels in biology, physics, German, and government and politics (2002)
  • BSc in Psychology, UCL (2003-06)
  • MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) Graduate Entry Programme, St. Bartholomew’s and The Royal London Medical School, QMUL (2006-10)

Career history

  • ‘Explainer’/science communicator, the Science Museum (2001-07)
  • Trainer, Bart’s City Life Saver (2008-10)
  • Foundation Year 1 doctor in A&E (2011)
  • Team leader, Bart’s City Life Saver (2011)
  • Graduate trainee, Wellcome Trust (2011-13)

Top tip

Be brave and go for what you want – even if it doesn’t exist. I saw Professor Geraint Rees talking to PhD students at the Trust, and he said there’s no point planning a career in great detail. Instead, you should gravitate towards areas you like, be passionate and enthusiastic and slot into opportunities when they arise. That really resonated with me. I don’t think you necessarily have to fix on one career; I felt all along that there’s lots of things I could potentially do and enjoy. Try something out and see where it takes you.

This article was originally part of the online content for ‘Big Picture: Careers from biology’. Read more profiles and find out more about careers with biology on the website

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