Some five million prescriptions are written every year in Ireland for mental illnesses alone. Each and every tablet must have a precise balance of ingredients to ensure that it works properly in the body and is safe to use. The people that ensure this happens and act as the consumer’s last line of defense are quality control scientists, like Janette Carroll, a contract scientist at Forest Laboratories in Dublin.
Janette, who hails from Galway, was always curious as a child, and was naturally drawn towards science. As a teenager, she began to avidly read crime fiction, and the works of authors such as Kathy Reichs, a former forensic anthropologist in the US. She loved Reichs’s novels, which focus on the use of science to solve crime, and enjoyed trying to solve the crime ahead of the narrative.
Some of the other writers that Janette likes to read including Patricia Cornwell (she has read all of her books), Karin Slaughter and Dick Francis. Some of the girls she talks to, she says, question why she wants to read about all of this terrible stuff, but for Janette it is all about curiousity. These authors, she says, know their audience well, and they often given out information on specific tests being done, or chemicals used, which help those with a keen eye – like Janette – to solve the crimes.
Janette’s other great interest in life is sport. She has always been interested in sport, and good at it. She used to horse ride all the time, and compete in events, though she doesn’t compete these days. She also plays basketball twice per week, and acts as a referee at the weekend. When she was younger she played rugby, and these days she plays a lot of softball. She has played for the Irish academy team in the world softball series and hopes to graduate onto the senior Irish team soon.
Neither of Janette’s parents worked in science. Her mother is still a teacher for children with physical and learning disabilities, while her father is a mechanic that builds customised cars for people with disabilities, or people that have suffered a serious car accident and, perhaps, lost several limbs. Janette grew up with her father’s garage beside the house, and often helped him with his work. People sought him out after they had an accident and he adapted vehicles to suit each person. Janette did learn from watching her father, but didn’t want to follow his career path. “I have a small idea of how to service my own car,” says Janette, “but I’d prefer to pay someone to do it for me.”
Janette doesn’t remember any particular teacher that piqued her interest in science. That interest was simply there, and from a young age. Her parents recognised this and one year Santa brought Janette a microscope for Christmas. She loved it. “I didn’t read the instructions,” recalled Janette. “I just shoved things under it. You could read the instructions, but that ruins the fun of just being curious.”
Thus, when a career guidance teacher at St Enda’s College in Salthill told Janette about a new course in Pharmaceutical and Forensic Science that had started at Limerick Institute of Technology, she was captivated. However, there was still a career choice for Janette to make, as she was also very interested in studying veterinary science, and had a strong interest in horses and horse riding.
She decided to do the science course. The course was very interesting, but she soon realised that the opportunities available in the area of forensic science – one part of the course – were far less than in the other part, which focussed on the skills required to work in the pharmaceutical industry. After graduation, in 2007, Janette got a job with Wyeth Laboratories. This was a great job, she recalls, and she was earning a lot more than most graduates, straight out of college, could hope to earn.
The job at Wyeth was as a quality control (QC) analyst. Many of Janette’s college classmates also ended up working in QC with one now employed at Roche and another with Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. The QC job is a responsible one, Janette says, which required good planning skills as well as scientific ability and rigorous attention to detail. Janette has found it challenging and rewarding.
After a while at Wyeth, Janette decided to go travelling, and picked up a job at the Charles River Laboratory in Scotland. This was a great job, she recalls, which involved working on the early stages of drug development, rather than on the testing of a drug that had already been designed. Although she doesn’t particularly like research, prefering to get stuck in, in the laboratory, using equipment and re-agents, she loved the intellectual challenge of early design and drug testing.
One of the great things about science, and working in QC, says Janette, is that there are plenty of jobs available, and this means it is always possible to travel and pick up contract work. That’s what she did after Scotland, and this time her destination was Australia. There she spent four months working on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, which involved spending up to six hours underwater every day. Janette didn’t mind this, in fact she loved it, as scuba diving is one of her big interests.
The idea of diving into the depths off a boat into waters populated by all manner of fish and predators would be a terrifying prospect for some, but not Janette. “It is not scary really,” says Janette. “I am confident enough that I’d be able to handle myself and someone else in a rescue situation (underwater). It won’t ever be scary for me,” she says, while adding “sometimes in the dark in the night, with a torch, and with the sharks around you, your heart skips a beat.”
After such adventures ‘down under’ it is perhaps inevitable that Janette regards life in Ireland, by way of comparison, as “a little boring” yet “it’s home”. She spent two and a half years away and was ready to return home. However, even though she arrived back in the middle of the worst economic crash in Irish history, she still had no problem picking up work straight away. The degree she took and the experience she has gained as a QC analyst means she can work almost anywhere.
When Janette came home, she got a job as an analyst with Forest Laboratories, a multi-national pharmaceutical company with two plants in Ireland. The plants at Coolock and Baldoyle in Dublin make drugs to combat psychosis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s exclusively for the US market. The Baldoyle plant produces Sudocream, which every parent will be familiar with, and recently a new drug gained approval for the US that will be produced in Dublin; a big boost for the Irish plant.
There are a couple of main stages of getting a drug through a quality control laboratory. There are the raw materials, which include active ingredients – the medicines – and the other ingredients. The drugs must be what they say they are, and there must be a consistent quality in all tablets produced. The QC work is very important, says Janette, as it protects the public from any harm. It requires a lot of discipline and organisation, but she admits that aspects of the job are boring and repetitive. That said, she would still highly recommend a career in science and QC for anyone considering it.
“It’s still amazing (a career in science) and easy to get a job,” says Janette. “The money is really good and there is plenty of opportunity to travel. Contract work is easy to pick up if you want to move about a bit when you are younger without having to take up permanent jobs, or set up a pension when you are 22 and just coming out of college,” she says, while adding that security and long term jobs are also there for those that want to work and settle down straight from graduation.
This article was first published in the November 2013 edition of Science Spin