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News > Science, Technology & Medicine > Tonbridge's Scientists: Nicholas Kitchin

Tonbridge's Scientists: Nicholas Kitchin

OTs answer: What can I do with my science degree?
2019 has been an extraordinary year for Science at Tonbridge. To mark the opening of the new Barton Science Centre, we asked Old Tonbridgians with a science background to write to us with their story. In the next pages, we hear from 9 OTs, whose experience demonstrate the wide range of job options available to science graduates, and many of whom have exploited the positive characteristics of their science-trained brains in some unexpected sectors. 

Senior Director, Vaccine Clinical Research, Pfizer

Having done science-based A levels, I left Tonbridge in 1985 to study medicine in London. I chose medicine because I enjoyed the underpinning subject matter, not because I had medicine 'in the family' (as many do) or because I felt a 'calling'. In retrospect, that directed many of the choices I took subsequently. I studied for an extra year to obtain an intercalated BSc in Biochemistry, so completed my medical degree in 1991.

After the obligatory jobs in general surgery, general medicine and A&E I decided to specialise in anaesthetics. Whilst I found this fascinating to learn, after a couple of years I realised it was not something that I wanted to do forever. By chance I spotted an advertisement for a junior role at a company performing first-in-human clinical trials, which I got. Despite the role being one that required a medical qualification, I recall many of my colleagues thinking that I was somehow opting out or jumping ship.


"The public health benefits of vaccination are so profound that once I became involved I didn't really want to do anything else."

Within a few months I realised that my tentative steps to a career in the pharmaceutical industry were the right ones. That job gave me an entry to subsequent more senior roles within international research-based pharmaceutical companies. The breadth of potential jobs in the sector is huge for scientists and medics alike – ranging from bench research, discovering new drugs through to those supporting companies’ commercial activities. Although I have always worked in the UK, there are also plenty of opportunities to work abroad.

Above: James Gillray's 1802 caricature of Jenner vaccinating patients who feared it would make them sprout cowlike appendages

Initially more by accident than design, I have been specialising in the field of vaccines for the past 20 years – in different roles at different companies, both on the commercial and the research side. The public health benefits of vaccination are so profound that once I became involved I didn’t really want to do anything else. It is often quoted that only the availability of clean water has made a greater contribution to global health than vaccination. Yet, ever since the days of Jenner and smallpox vaccination in the late 18th century, there has been a vociferous minority of people who distrust vaccination.

These negative opinions range from outright hostility towards vaccination, which is relatively uncommon, through to hesitancy, which is much more prevalent particularly amongst the better educated. The underlying reasons are varied, ranging from the fact that many diseases we routinely vaccinate against are no longer seen (and so their seriousness becomes underestimated), through concern about vaccine safety (fuelled by things like the MMR vaccine 'scare') to distrust of institutions that recommend vaccination (which are often linked to governments).

In our connected, social media-influenced world messages can be shared widely, rapidly and sometimes for malicious purpose. This is exemplified by recent news that American researchers have found that social media bots and Russian trolls have been spreading disinformation about vaccines on Twitter to create social discord and distribute malware. Interestingly, the study found that they often posted both pro and anti-vaccination messages to create so-called false equivalency, which could lead people to believe there is a more evenly balanced debate about the pros and cons and vaccination than there actually is. (1)

As responsible citizens, it is beholden on us to make rational health-related decisions for ourselves and our families based on the best evidence available. In the 21st century more than ever, weighing up the provenance of that evidence is critical.

1. (Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. Broniatowski DA et al. Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print August 23, 2018: e1-e7)

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