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Aspirational Alumni, Saffron – International Women’s Day 2022

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Saffron MacLeod-Burrows

Bioinformatics Degree Apprenticeship, Illumina


My name is Saffron MacLeod-Burrows and I’m a Bioinformatics Apprentice at Illumina. Bioinformatics is the field of science responsible for understanding and analysing biological data like DNA sequencing data.

My start at Long Road wasn’t the one I’d originally hoped for; I’d originally applied to do Biology, Chemistry and Psychology. I got a 5 in my Maths GCSE and this meant I wasn’t accepted onto the science courses. Instead, I was offered to redo my GCSEs for a year or enrol on the BTEC Applied Science Extended Diploma, I didn’t want to be the only one of my friends doing 3 years at Sixth form and watching them all go to university, so I did the BTEC. There’s no problem with doing an extra year now that I look back on it but it’s all about the insecurities I had at the time and still have, and I’ve also always been one for moving forward and not staying still.

I started Sixth form wanting to pursue Marine Biology, I absolutely love whales and used to be able to come out with the most random facts about them. I still wanted to do Marine Biology in the July of my first year when my parents and I trekked all the way to Bangor, Wales for a university open day. But when it came time to apply to University, I applied to do Nutrition and Dietetics, I’d say pretty much a 180 turn on the industry I wanted to go into. I received conditional offers from everywhere I applied and at this point, the question is ‘Why am I not currently studying Nutrition?’.

I’d finished all of my coursework; my last exam was written, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed to take my university place. I didn’t think I’d make my grades. I was working as a Lifeguard at the time and contemplating a gap year to figure things out and reapply. (This was all before I’d even been rejected. The thing was I felt like it was a bit of history repeating itself. Start of Sixth form and being rejected from my chosen courses. Self-Doubt. The biggest thing we ALL suffer from.)

I decided university wasn’t for me and looked at degree apprenticeships and I found mine. Coming from a biology background, I couldn’t code at all and I didn’t think I was going to get a job offer, but I walked in for my interview and thought: “I want to work here…No I have to work here.” The Illumina centre is an amazing space on Granta Park with floor-to-ceiling windows and no end of collaboration spaces. I found the apprenticeship on the government apprenticeship website and applied through Illumina’s website. I then had a phone interview followed by an in-person interview. I got a job offer from Illumina and even though I didn’t have the choice of university, because I had let my offer expire, I would have taken the apprenticeship offer. My degree is being fully paid for and I’ve had the opportunity of a lifetime to work and gain experience at Illumina.

Illumina is an American biotechnology company that makes DNA sequencers. They’re one of the world’s leading companies in DNA analysis. Illumina technology is responsible for generating 90% of the world’s sequencing data. The group I work for within Illumina work closely with Genomics England and the NHS to offer Whole Genome Sequencing for Cancer and R are genetic diseases. My current contract is 4 years long and in September I’ll be halfway through. I’m getting in-industry experience that I wouldn’t be getting at University. I’m also being trained by people that know exactly what they’re talking about and not just from theory.

Whilst I was at Long Road, we were enrolled on a Career Ready program, this was really good to get a proper look into different industries and also see what a proper workplace is actually like!
My main teacher, Huw, was a big help. Before I started I had this misconception about apprenticeships that you only did them if you weren’t very good academically, but I’ve learnt that is very much not the case and if it hadn’t been for Huw, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about degree apprenticeships.

Genomics has been a huge aid in fighting Covid-19. In research, vaccination development, and testing. The group I work for in Illumina has been using our sequencers for research and sequencing the DNA of patients with varying responses to coronavirus to see if there’s a reason for how differently people have reacted to the virus on a genetic level. I think the pandemic has helped with overall awareness for the industry I work in, Genomics is still a really young industry of science, the sequencing of the first human genome was only officially completed in 2003 and since then the industry has thrived.

My current dream would be to be offered a permanent position at the end of my degree and contract. I am considering of I want to do a Ph.D.? What do I want to use my degree in Bioinformatics for? I’m still not sure about the answers but I definitely want to explore more areas, like Agrigenomics and Marine genomics.

Advice to current students:

  • Make sure you accept changed offers on UCAS, if you don’t, they’ll go away and you’ll feel like your world is ending….
  • Something that you’re probably sick of hearing: Study! I always wish I studied harder!
  • Even if you don’t think you need to talk to someone, do. Because as humans we suppress a lot of our feelings and think we’re doing ok and in reality, we’re really not.
  • Make a plan, but don’t make a plan that’s set in stone.
  • Get as much work experience as you can. Now and if you got to university
  • If you’re thinking of University, do some research and see if there are any apprenticeships being offered in the same qualification.
  • If you want to do anything related to Science or Maths, learn some basics in Python and R because you will need the knowledge and it’s one less thing to learn when you actually need to use it.
  • Make connections, if you don’t already have LinkedIn get it! You can connect with me.