Dr Camilla Pang, attended Wycliffe from 2005 to 2010. She holds a PhD in Bioinformatics from University College London (UCL) and works as a postdoctoral scientist for a pharmaceutical company.
She has also just published her first book, Explaining Humans, available HERE
Tell me briefly about what you currently do.
I am a scientist by day at a pharmaceutical company – where I work with Machine learning and data science to find novel therapeutics in immunity and neurological based diseases such as – epilepsy, cancer, parkinson’s and alzheimer’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
By night (and weekends), I am a writer and autism advocate – where I am very excited to announce that my first book on science/psychology, Explaining Humans, will be published by Viking (Penguin Random House) in March 2020. It is a memoir about someone with autism (moi) who uses the lenses of science to understand and model human behaviour.
What you studied at school and then university
For my A-Levels I studied: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Art. Which then led me straight into a Bsc(hons) Biochemistry degree at the University of Bristol, and then onto PhD in structural, chemical and computational biology at UCL.
Some of the best memories I have made at Wycliffe includes the time when:
When I won the music competition by playing the piano without paper music, but by improvisation which was amazing, albeit unexpected as I went rogue. Wycliffe supported and loved that it was my own shape.
When I pitched for the observatory in year 9 (because the physics teacher in question respected that Stephen Hawking was my all time crush), and left me to present the proposal to the Parent committee. We won and it is now by the sports hall.
I would spend my evenings in the boarding houses with teachers who were there to help me with my subjects. And just before bed, where the 6th form boarders would make pot noodles before bedtime/lights out, and eat them on the stairs in our slippers – mediating a plethora of conversations about life, ambitions, whilst also putting the world to right.
Teacher: To choose a favourite teacher is actually quite difficult, because ironically there are many to choose from – but they all fall into a commonality of enabling me to be my own shape, whilst encouraging and inspiring me beyond the realms of the curriculum. For Art, it would be Steven Hubbard and Mr Royston (left a fews years back), Lorraine Paine for physics, Miss Eleey for biology, Mrs Cobbs and Mr Welham for maths, and Dr Rose for chemistry, who also helped me with my career development.
Career: (see my A level chemistry passages from the 6th form guide).
“I always loved Science, in fact it was my means in which I survived and understood my peers and navigated life. From all sides of science I was inspired, from both the trips that were presented to us to the approaches of teaching that enabled a full and well rounded perspective on the subjects. Chemistry, always being one of my favourites was all encompassing with the different aspects – such as Organic, Inorganic and Physical Chemistry which were covered, which were all are needed in my career and study as a biochemist. “
The combination of Art was a choice of mine that I made, which despite raising eyebrows amongst peers, it was supported and unchallenged by the teachers – since they just let me get on with it which is what I needed. What more could a neurodiverse teenager ask for?
Amongst all of this, I think it was the evening engagements – such as the choir and the after school side projects – that were buffeted like free biscuits which formed some of my favourite times. It provides a time and place to just be creative, relax, and communicate, which not only comes in handy for your work, but also for your sanity as a human in later adult life. What I would give to have an art room at my doorstep to create in the evenings! Wycliffe set me up for life in enabling me to shine in the things I loved, and develop an all round confidence and knowing what I need as an adult.
Challenging: As someone with Autism, just living as a human is a challenge, in the everyday logistics, sensory overloads, abated social connection and information interpretation – it can occupy a range of places that cause friction and meltdowns. Subjects and the well supported teaching aside, wycliffe provided the sense of routine, and belonging that enveloped me. To this day, it is something that I have really benefited from. Wycliffe provided a place where I could contribute and connect, a confidence that I have taken with me to the wider world – the confidence to take that step forward. In life, I have come to realise that you need that more often than you think.
How you started your career and perhaps how others could get started now:
For science, I recommend internships in labs you are interested in, but also ones in which don’t immediately tickle your fancy as they are also useful since they may surprise you and you learn regardless! Going to events such as science festivals, and talks by science authors or professors are also great as then you can get a feel for the community and network and get your face known. Focus on the parts you like, and be open to explore the parts that you don’t and question why. You always learn and refine what you like as it is a trial and error, but at least you have a reference point.
What pushed my decision to be a scientist was considering the type of work I was drawn to, and the sense of purpose i felt – such as if I volunteered at a care home – as much as it was rewarding being able to communicate- I knew that my passion was with proactive development of cures and the study of the biology to make them have a better quality of life. You will always be able to ‘help people’, it is just finding the way which resonates with you best. But who is to say that this may change in 10 years? Be open. There is no right or wrong answer or path, and don’t be afraid to branch out.
How has your career evolved? Your new book and PHD
Apart from doing the bachelors to PhD, and now postdoc route, my career has evolved into a bifurcation – where I wrote on the side since I like to fill me free time with something different but nevertheless enjoy ( I hold wycliffe accountable for that!). I wanted to publish and be involved with the writing community.I have only been out of uni 1.5 years and so I am still learning but so far, so good. To incorporate art into science – be it through research or another book – is definitely on the cards though.
What have you enjoyed most / found the most challenging?
Being honest, these are synonymous with me – as it is a problem to be solved. I love it when research takes you into a synthesis of the different sides of science – to create something bigger than its components, creating insight. This did involve coding a few years back, which as much as it is very useful, at first I found it challenging as when you get your syntax wrong in learning, the computer doesn’t tell you why or how to fix it and that can be annoying. At least with people you can reason with them.
Would you be willing to offer advice, mentoring support to a recent leaver, could you offer work experience? Mentoring definitely, I would be open to mentor work experience for an aspiring scientist, but will need to make sure my boss is ok with it first! Writing wise, I offer workshops and partake in panelled interviews for literature events, and so I am in great support of aspiring writers.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done in your career/work so far?
Planning meetings, about meetings themselves.