Msc Natural Product Drug Discovery - Justin Abi Assaf

Justin Abi Assaf was one of the first students to complete the MSc Natural Product Drug Discovery at UEA.

With a Master’s already under his belt, we found out what drew him to UEA, what he enjoyed about the course, and his words of advice for future Natural Product Drug Discovery students.

Let's start with a career overview

Currently I work at Quadram as a Research Assistant.

I work with a big group called Microbes in the Food Chain. As the title gives away, it deals with all pathogens involved in the food chain and anti-microbial resistance.

I work with Salmonella, so my current project is trying to test different food additives and using certain stress on the cell and monitoring how the cell or bacteria itself evolves.

I've been working in a lab setting for almost six years now. I previously worked in a hospital as a microbiologist. I was also a lab assistant for organic chemistry lab sessions and currently I'm working in a research lab setting of academic, medical and research work.

Do you have a favourite aspect of the role that you do now?

It's quite flexible. It gives you lots of opportunities to improvise.

When you run an experiment, you expect a certain result, but you never know how it ends up. You have to find ways to troubleshoot certain problems, so this gives you a bit of creativity in the sense that you try to find different ways to overcome different problems.

Obviously, it's time consuming. It doesn't happen overnight, but this gives you time to plan your own days. This flexibility allows you to go at your own pace, which is always good.

I used to work 8 to 5 or 8 to 4 jobs. If everything doesn't finish by that time, you have to drag it to the next day, but with research, even if you don't finish it today, you know that you can continue on the next day. It's a very long chain of events, and I like that.

What did you study before the MSc Natural Product Drug Discovery?

I did my Bachelor’s degree in lab sciences at another institution, specifically medical lab sciences. It's everything that you study to work in a medical lab setting.

I did my first Master’s degree in lab management, which is completely different from sciences. It's more managerial, so you study budgeting, HR, how to control the labs, how to improve the turnover to staff members, how to reduce expenses, etcetera. That was an interesting experience because the first degree was more science-oriented and this was more business oriented.

After my first Master’s I thought, “I'll stick to science.” I did another Master’s at UEA in drug discovery.  It's obviously science related and has to do specifically with natural products. So, we basically dealt with lots of different natural sources and tried to find ways where we can manipulate compounds and turn them into useful drugs or supplements.

Why did you then decide to study at UEA?

I wanted a programme that was for a year and I needed something specifically targeting natural products.

I’ve always had this fascination with ecology or nature itself, and how you can use nature for your own benefit. The idea of having a natural drug around you and being creative enough to know how to use it, is something I’m very passionate about.

When I was doing my research around this specific program, I was trying to find this particular program and I couldn’t really find it elsewhere. 

What was your favourite thing about the course?

I enjoyed the structure of it. We didn’t have written exams, so we didn’t have to study for an exam and do the exam and wait for scores.

We were given lectures and we were given topics to write about and ultimately find a dissertation based on our personal project. That was very interesting because it gave me more time to read and less stress and worry about actually sitting for an exam. 

What was something that you learned on your course that you still use today?

I'd say it varies. When we do our final project, the topic we decide to work on is completely up to us.

I did my final project on inflammation and I tried to test different peptides derived from food sources on cells and see whether they exhibited any anti-inflammatory results.

I would say just the experience of being in a different setting, the mentality of working with different people is something that you learn in your career.

Throughout your career you have to deal with different personalities of different people. Some of them you might not get along with, so I think having to learn how to adapt towards different changes is something that UEA helped me with.

While you were at UEA, did you use any services to help you think about your future career?

I used CareerCentral a lot. I signed up for their newsletter where you get the latest updates, whether they’re job opportunities, volunteering opportunities, internships.

They run workshops every week where they run different topics, whether it's a LinkedIn workshop or interview workshop.

I've attended workshops at UEA and I think I've used the library a lot, especially during my dissertation, just to access different journals and different articles. I made good use of the resources available.

Do you have any words of advice for people considering doing the Masters?

I’d say research it properly, so just reach out to the person involved or in charge of the programme.

Ultimately, you do want to get the best out of your degree in terms of education and opportunities, so I’d say always ask for help.

The degree itself obviously matters a lot, but also what matters is how you use it.

You'll get the certificate and your colleagues will also get the certificate, but what makes you stand out is how you use it and what you do in that period in between graduation and finding a proper job. You want to always stand out. Make sure that people recognise and know that you’re present and you've got something extra to present on the table.

Even if you don't know what you want to do next, it's always good to experiment a bit. Whether it's a part time job, or volunteering, or maybe shadowing at a work site. It's fine if you don't find that ‘perfect’ role the very first time because even if you don't like it, you still learn a lot. It's not like you're stuck with a job until the end of your life, so give yourself time to grow as a person.

Even if something doesn't turn out as expected, you just have to deal and find ways to improve the situation. Life is all about learning how to adapt and overcoming obstacles. Whether it's career-wise or education-wise, it's fine if you don't have a target. It might sound like a cliché, but life is a journey and not a destination.