“What I find most interesting in my research,” says David, “is how Darwinian evolutionary principles can be applied at just a single gene level. Amazing to watch evolution in action– forget about fossil records, this is absolute proof that evolution can occur in real time. And you can make some pretty cool things.”
This field is David’s particular interest and his intense passion is how David got to where he is today. David studied biochemistry at the University of Otago and, after finishing his degree, completed an honours year and then a PhD. This led him to San Francisco, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University.
“Doing a PhD can be a great way to see the world, as even if you do it in New Zealand it is generally expected that you will get some further training overseas after that – kind of like being a locum in medicine.”
After being in the industry more than 15 years, David has found that coming up with original ideas to reach the desired outcome is the most rewarding aspect of the job.
“It’s literally being an inventor. It takes lots of lateral thinking and innovative new ideas to achieve the types of goals we want to achieve. It’s very satisfying when you get there, or even just when you come up with an exciting new approach that may solve a problem the field has been struggling with.”
However, due to the advanced equipment required in biotechnology, David also notes the money as an obstacle – especially considering the time and effort required to be granted the necessary funding for himself, his colleagues and his students.
“The work I do is quite expensive, both in terms of the equipment and consumables needed to get it done, and the scholarships and salaries required to pay the postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows who do the vast majority of the hands-on stuff I take the credit for.
“Some of the grants I apply for take several weeks of solid work just to get the applications together, and then under 10 per cent of the applications get funded, which can be pretty disheartening.”
Despite this, David continues to thoroughly enjoy the job. Having a positive perspective is probably the most important trait to possess if you want to enter the field of biotechnology, he says.
“You’ve got to have a decent dash of mindless optimism. In my area of molecular biology research, it definitely helps to have a ‘glass half full’ attitude. Most experiments don’t pan out quite the way you hope, so you have to revel in your successes without getting too downhearted by the inevitable failures.”