Shaan Gill - Oncology Translational Medicine Apprentice at AstraZeneca

Name: Shaan Gill

Age: 21

Company: AstraZeneca

Apprenticeship: Oncology Apprentice

Department: Translational Medicine

Location: Chesterford Research Park

Degree: Applied Bioscience

Education Provider: University of Kent

Started apprenticeship:

  • Level 5 (Fd degree) Sept 2017 – Aug 2020
  • Level 6 (BSc degree) Jan 2021 – July 2022 (expected)


What apprenticeship are you currently doing?

I am currently completing a Level 6 degree apprenticeship with AstraZeneca and the University of Kent which will take 4 years and 9 months to complete. The end result will be a BSc Bioscience degree and just under 5 years industry work experience. My time is split 20/80 between study and work, 1 day a week is dedicated to studying online via distance learning with the University of Kent and the remaining 4 days working at AstraZeneca.

I am based in the Oncology Translational Medicine department. We carry out biomarker analysis of human tissue and blood samples from real patients enrolled in AstraZeneca clinical trials testing new cancer medicines. The data produced is used to; understand the impact of the medicine on the tumour and microenvironment, define dosage levels and schedule, identify the right patient populations and define the mechanism of resistance.

Why did you decide to apply for an apprenticeship?

Like many 17/18 year olds finishing sixth form or college, the most conventional next step promoted by schools is to go to university in order to gain a degree. At my sixth form I completed the International Baccalaureate (IB) and they primarily encouraged university going forward. I fortunately discovered degree level apprenticeships in a laboratory environment during a work experience week. This had a great appeal to me as apprenticeships provide the opportunity to both study for a BSc degree and gain hands on experience by working in industry. I can enter the workplace and start building my career immediately without the worry of debt and lack of experience. Furthermore, I am able to understand the application of my knowledge gained in my degree in the real pharmaceutical setting instead of theoretical experiments.

What have you found beneficial from doing an apprenticeship programme?

I found numerous benefits from the apprenticeship programme in comparison to university. The most apparent advantage being the vast amount on hands-on experience gained throughout the programme. At my apprenticeship I’ve been able to work in a world leading pharmaceutical company contributing to real oncology drug development from the first day.

Can you describe a ‘typical day’ in your apprenticeship?

My typical day can be very varied as I tend to work across multiple projects. If I am in an early stage of a project I am more office based; doing research, answering emails, having meetings with project leads and making plans or workflows. This is a very interesting part as I get to learn about the scientific rationale behind a project and the medicine. In the middle of a project I am heavily lab based. I am in the lab prepping or doing experiments. This is my favourite part of my job as I get to advance my skills, learn a new technique and do practical work. Towards the end of a project it is a mixture of office and lab. I am looking at my results, doing quality control and data analysis. If required I may need to repeat an experiment, if samples failed, or to attempt to get better quality results. This part is great as the project comes together and I can see the bigger picture. I get to see how the work I do and data I produce is beneficial to the project and what conclusions are made from it.

How would you describe the culture at AZ?

AstraZeneca has a very supportive and inclusive culture, providing a great environment to kickstart my career. I am constantly supported in both my work and studies, and provided with personal development opportunities. Everyone is always willing to take time to answer questions, give advice and share their knowledge.  I genuinely feel like everyone wants me to succeed and is always there to help me develop and encourage me to expand my skills.

What has been the most rewarding/interesting project you have been involved in and why?

Working in Oncology Translational Medicine means I handle and analyse samples from patients enrolled in AstraZeneca clinical trials. Knowing the work I do benefits patients makes every project incredibly rewarding to work on. I’m very appreciate of the opportunity knowing that I can make an impact and difference even as an apprentice.

Why did you choose the company you are training and working at?

I discovered degree level apprenticeships during a half-term work experience week at GlaxoSmithKline when I was in sixth form. As soon as I heard about it, it had more appeal to me over university as I was keen to get into the workplace as soon as possible. I researched more degree level apprenticeships in the science industry using the website. I found this tool very useful as I could enter the specific requirement for the apprenticeship. For example I wanted my apprenticeship to be laboratory based, a level 6 degree, and to be within a 30-mile radius of where I lived. After this I received emails of any apprenticeship that matched those preferences.

Despite being keen for an apprenticeship I only applied to two; one at GlaxoSmithKline and one at AstraZeneca as both are large pharmaceutical companies with good reputations and within a good distance. Additionally, I still applied to university as the apprenticeships I applied for were competitive so I needed a backup and I wanted to have options. At the time I was still undecided which path was better for me and what I would enjoy more. I personally found it rather daunting to give up the conventional and safe route of university for an apprenticeship in which I had to juggle working as well as studying. The interview process put me at ease once I saw where I would be working, who my potential colleagues would be, and understood more of what my role and course would entail. After the interview I was more set on an apprenticeship being the right path for me.

How is your job linked to subjects you studied at school and why is it important?

At my sixth form I completed the IB studying Biology Higher Level (HL), Psychology HL, Chemistry HL, Maths Standard Level (SL), English SL and Japanese SL. Studying biology was critical as it provided the foundation of my biological understanding in order to progress onto the Bioscience degree, especially the immunology topic focusing on how pathogens cause disease and medicines work to improve health. Chemistry introduced common laboratory equipment, considerations for designing experiments, the application of health and safety and experimental report writing. Maths was useful as it demonstrates how to apply different statistical tests and present data in various formats. Additionally, psychology emphasized the importance of ethical consideration in research involving human and animal subjects.

What’s the favourite part of your job?

My favourite part of my job is all the hand-on experience from working in the laboratory and running experiments. Looking back to when I first started I had no experience of working in an industry environment, compared to now where I can independently run experiments in the laboratory and produce vital data for critical projects. I really enjoy being able to contribute to oncology drug development. This has made my passion for science grow every day. Additionally, I find it fascinating both studying and working in a pharmaceutical company as I can immediately apply the knowledge I gain from my degree into the workplace.

What have you got from your apprenticeship that you want to share with others who might be considering one?

Studying for a BSc degree whilst working for a world leading pharmaceutical company and contributing to real science is amazing, as well as earning a salary and being debt free! This is a fantastic alternative to university as the hands-on experience and working skills that university doesn’t offer makes you more employable and reveals more career opportunities.

Have you any advice to others?

Gaining work experience in the industry of interest is extremely beneficial as it provides further insight into the career that interests you. Additionally it allows you to speak first hand to working professionals to ask questions, discuss the path they took to get to their current position, learn more about their experience and understand more about different areas of the industry. This is not only valuable experience for yourself but also great to have on your application and CV to be more employable.


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