Spotlight on...Nancy Wong

29 April 2017 - By: Sarah Blackford

Spotlight on...Nancy Wong

Nancy Wong

By Sarah Blackford

A brief encounter with a stranger on a railway station platform, resulting in an exciting new career brings a whole new meaning to ‘Network Rail’, but this is how Nancy Wong first heard about her current job.

As I talk to Nancy and explain the process of writing up this interview, she’s already warning me that she will be away later in the month on arctic survival training in Sweden. That may sound quite extreme but, as she elaborates further, I find out she’s already undergone helicopter underwater escape training and learnt about how to survive a shipwreck. So what is this exciting job and how has she made the transition from a PhD in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Southampton in just two years? “My role is Technical Adviser for a not-for-profit oil and chemical spill response organisation,” Nancy reveals. Working alongside other postgraduate qualified scientists, Nancy explains that their primary role is to offer impartial technical advice and recommendations on effective response to ship-source spills of oil and chemicals at sea: “We get notified when there is a pollution incident anywhere in the world and, if required, we advise on how best to handle the clean-up operation. This could mean providing off-site advice remotely from the office, or more often than not, travelling to the site, sometimes at very short notice.”

Personal ambitions

Nancy had already been getting on the right track with her career since graduating from her PhD; following a friend’s tip-off she had filed her CV with a recruitment agency, having just returned from travelling around South America. They offered her a permanent position working as a project manager with a business psychology consultancy developing and recruiting executives for FTSE 100 companies. “It was an interesting job,” says Nancy. “The work was challenging and varied and the company certainly practised what it preached in actively encouraging staff to develop their own careers. However, aside from this, I found I was missing the scientific stimulation I had experienced and used during my PhD.”

Returning to her ‘brief encounter’ moment, Nancy explains: “During one of my daily commutes home when I worked as a project manager, I got chatting with someone on the train about our jobs, during which I mentioned my science background. He thought I might be interested in a post being advertised by his organisation and passed on the information to me. I applied, was interviewed and got the job!” During her interview, Nancy convinced her new employers of her suitability for the post of Technical Adviser through her PhD and personal experiences. “As a member of SEB during my PhD, I applied for a travel grant to attend the Salzburg meeting in 2012. It was inspirational to meet leaders in the field, even though I had decided that an academic career was not for me. I always knew about networking, but experiencing it for yourself and making and maintaining relationships is something you don’t really value until it works.”

Training for the future

Other opportunities during her PhD that contributed to Nancy’s success include her participation in entrepreneurial activities such as Biotechnology YES2, setting up and running the university’s postgraduate and cheerleading societies, as well as more technical activities such as writing risk management assessments and adhering to health and safety guidelines (somewhat central to her current job!). “The intellectual side of my PhD, as well as the ability to plan, problem solve and demonstrate endurance and stamina, are all vital components of my current job,” she says. “Generally, only one Technical Adviser is mobilised for an incident and on site you could be working up to 18 hours at a time. The work is intense but very rewarding; you get to see your advice make a difference and meet a lot of interesting people along the way, all whilst experiencing different cultures and learning ubiquitously. Having the motivation to keep going even when you’re tired and hungry is something most of us learn during our PhD!”


Category: Cell Biology
Sarah Blackford - Author Profile

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.