Skip to main content

Shannon Lacombe

Shannon Lacombe
Policy and Communications Assistant, British Society for Immunology

How many years have you been working in this sector?

I have been working in the Policy and Communications sector for as long as I’ve been working at the BSI – less than a year.

What do you like the most about your job?

I come from a science background, having done a BSc in Biochemistry at UCL followed by an MSc in Immunology at Oxford. So one of the things I like most about working for the BSI in Policy and Communications is that I stay closely connected to science, but have a different perspective than I have had previously.

I should first explain what exactly my job is, as I realise it may look quite unique on an “Immunology Careers” webpage. Policy and Communications involves staying up to date with current events in immunology and the broader life sciences. This may be in the context of happenings in parliament, universities, industry, the NHS etc. Through this current knowledge, coupled with the interests of immunologists across the UK, we work to promote positive change at the government policy level. Day-to-day, I find myself very busy, going to parliament committee meetings and debates on key issues (e.g. Brexit), writing policy briefings on key topics (e.g. cancer immunotherapy and immunisation), attending conferences (academic and non-academic), and always thinking forward to what I think science and immunology should look like in the near and distant future. It’s an incredibly fascinating and fast-paced position to be in! 

This means that I get to work with inspiring and influential people from a wide-range of backgrounds with a variety of interests to discuss the same end-goal on specific topics –scientists, clinicians, journalists, MPs, funders etc. all working on the same topics. From this, I am constantly learning how to communicate science to a wide audience and how to tailor projects to a targeted group. For example, having done research myself in cancer immunotherapy, I wrote a briefing for the lay population on cancer immunotherapy and had to tailor my usual very-scientific voice to the general public.

Finally, what I enjoy most about working in this job is that I see the almost immediate and positive impact that my work can have. One of the reasons I decided to explore my career options rather than doing a PhD following my MSc was that I often felt there was a disconnect between the work I was doing in the lab and the positive impact that the work could have. In Policy and Communications, you are constantly aware of what needs to be done for science at the present and feel connected to very real issues and see these issues tackled at the forefront.

What led you into your current role or career?

Throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I often felt that I was in a tunnel driving towards an academic career and I think that is true for a lot of students in very academic science degrees. I think the journey to a science degree can overlook the variety of careers available to offer a science graduate. When I stopped to think about my next step post-MSc, I evaluated what I enjoyed from the lab and what I didn’t enjoy as much. I knew I found the conceptual science behind the research I had been a part of incredibly fascinating, and I enjoyed time spent working and collaborating with inspiring scientists and explaining my research to others, but I felt there were options that I had not yet explored.

I used my time during my MSc to get involved in societies and networking events and joined an organisation called Polygeia – students shaping global health policy. I became incredibly interested in Health Policy and seeing my team’s work have real-world impact almost immediately. This is when I began to think towards career options in Policy.

With this newly found insight, a Policy and Communications position at the BSI combines both my vested interest in immunology with a career sector (that before I didn’t realise I could go into coming from my degree) that I wanted to learn more about.

What are the career progression options in this role?

At an early career stage in Policy and Communications, you begin to gain skills, experience, and contacts that will help with career progression. Below I discuss transferrable skills in more detail, but it is these that you develop throughout a science degree and continue developing in Policy and Comms jobs that are in high demand across all sectors and in many fields.

In Policy and Comms, there are no concrete career steps, like may be clearly set out in other career areas. Ultimately, career progression comes down to personal interest and knowledge. There are Policy and Comms jobs everywhere, covering a wide range of issues and projects. Examples include, but are not limited to, learned societies and charities (such as the BSI), or you can use your skills to take up similar jobs in private sectors, like in the pharmaceutical industry or in the consulting industry.

What are the most important skills and experiences that have got where you are today?

It is important to understand that what makes a science degree worthwhile isn’t necessarily only the content you absorb in lectures. Of course, as a person with two science degrees I would never argue that the content is not important, but it is completely true that you develop an invaluable skillset in science degrees that arguably equips you for life.

I was a student of two very demanding courses and often I was building on and utilizing skills where I didn’t even realise. Time-management is something that is exceptionally important and in such demanding courses is absolutely vital to get by. In Policy, you may be working on multiple projects at once and time management becomes essential. Communication skills, in particular, understanding how to communicate very complex and intellectual topics to a whole wide range of audiences from a lay person at a dinner to other scientists in your lab is also very important in this sector. Again, this is something I began learning how to do from early in my university education and is now an essential part of what I do day to day.

In terms of experiences, again, seeing as I am in the early stages of my career, I can’t say I have had a lot of life experiences that have got me here. However, networking and being involved in different societies at university and outside of university have helped me get to where I am today.

Any tips or advice you would give to someone thinking of going into this type of career?

For those who may be in a similar mind-set to what I was in; that is, enjoying and being passionate about science but not convinced a research-career is for you, I have a few words of wisdom.

First, I would urge you to explore your options and not box yourself into a specific category. There are so many opportunities out there and having a science degree is only an asset. Go to networking events to build up contacts, join different organisations and societies (even if you just go to one meeting, you’ve explored an option), make use of your university careers services etc. Ultimately, I would encourage everyone to make use of what is at your doorstep because it may spark an interest in something that you didn’t realise you could be interested in.

Second, know that you have time. Culturally, I think we are programmed to think you have to follow a logical order and should always be thinking about your next step. As a university student, you have time. I have been in laboratories, where people have started in science, left science and come back to science years later. Likewise, I have been a part of a university cohort (my MSc class) where several of the students had gone and worked in different sectors, from consulting to medicine, and wanted to go back to research years later. It is much more important to give yourself time to find what you want to do, by exploring what is available, rather than settling in something because you think you have to immediately take the next step.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, really evaluate your time spent in the lab. Understand what it is you enjoy about it and what it is you do not. You may find that what you enjoy about being in the lab may be found more frequently in a different environment.