About CSci

  • John Robinson
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John Robinson
Featured Profile: 
At A Glance
Licensed Body: 
Scientist Type: 
South West
First Degree: 
BSc Applied Chemisty
Public Analyst & Head of Chemical Labs Cardiff
Works For: 
Minton Treharne & Davies Ltd.
BSc Applied Chemistry, MSC in Analytical Chemistry (UCL), Mastership in Chemical Analysis
Pet Hates: 
Too much superfluous paperwork getting in the way of real work, Celebrity Big Brother (famous for being famous but no talent)
Burning Ambition: 
I’d love to visit the Arctic and Machu Picchu
To be able to fly, and fly fast
Big Picture
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
I probably wanted to be an architect. I enjoyed building and designing things
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist? 
Most of my family are scientists. Years ago, when I was 15 and in a youth club, we occasionally had guest speakers. A public analyst named Wilfred Cassidy explained what he did. He used an example of a milk bottle with a metal chain that ended up sealed inside of it from the farm. I was fascinated
What do you love about your job and being a “scientist”? 
I love that this is a job where you’re never sure what you’re going to be doing. It’s reasonably varied and I deal with a lot of people. Even though I’m more desk-bound, there’s still a lot of science involved and being very inquisitive
What would you change? 
Ticking boxes, especially with local authorities, and niggly paperwork which is not that important and doesn’t help you do the job. Also, people checking what you’re doing but not actually checking the quality of the work. Looking at the outcome and not how you got there…
What qualifications did you take at school? 
I did science A-levels (chemistry, maths, physics)
Why did you choose your first degree subject? 
I have a BSc in Applied Chemistry
Do you have a Masters or PhD? If not, was it difficult to demonstrate Masters-level equivalence in order to achieve CSci? 
I have a Masters in Analytical Chemistry (UCL)
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? 
A public analyst is a bit like public health, but they do microbiology whereas we look at chemical composition and nutrition. In my line of work I look at toys, feed for animals, water, agriculture, and anything trade in description (i.e. household products). I test products for trading standards. It’s quite a small, targeted profession. Unless you come into contact with us, no one knows what we do. I’m concerned with questions like – Is it on the label? Questions of food fraud and safety, like the melamine in milk scandal that happened in China
What is ‘cutting-edge’ about your work? 
We continually try and find out what industries are up to in the way of food fraud. People are always trying to save money, increase profits, and make an article look better than it is. We try to find out what companies have done to something to change it. We’re trying to catch people and constantly playing catch-up. If you go back 100 years it was quite simple, but now the emphasis is on nutrition (i.e. processed foods) and misleading labels. We’re very keen on where food comes from. How can we tell where something’s come from? For example, we can do DNA fingerprinting of domestic breed cattle to protect them from meat that’s being smuggled in illegally
What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future? 
The health of the nation. If somebody is producing food which is substandard or counterfeit, it disadvantages the general producer and can put them out of business. We protect jobs as well as health. What’s the long-term effect of substandard food? Obesity. Too much is driven by price and not by quality
Describe some of the highlights of your average day. 
A lot of work is routine. It’s nice when we get something a bit different. We get referrals where a member of the public has bought something and complained about it to their local council. It can be quite challenging to work out what the heck’s gone wrong. We had one where somebody had a milk carton with a big object fell out…it turns out it was a bat
Describe briefly how your career has progressed to date. 
I went to work for BDH, a big UK chemical producer in Dorset in their quality assurance department. They suggested I did a Masters degree over two years at UCL. I did one day a week for 30 weeks. After seven years I moved on to Exeter in Devon and worked for a private public analyst lab called Tickle & Reynolds. Here I got more interested in what a public analyst does and I looked into taking the exam. I got deputized for the agriculture section. Next I moved to Leicestershire where I worked for a council public analyst lab in charge of their non-food sections (toys, agriculture etc.) After six years I moved to where I am now and took the final part of the public analyst exam. The council appointed me to work in Cardiff where I run their chemical labs (environmental and general, oil testing, coal and solid fuel testing, an instrumentation lab, and medical diagnostics in partnership with a local hospital looking at genes and mutations)
How is your job cross-disciplinary? 
Being a scientist and being a public analyst means you have to understand both science and legislation. You need to know a lot about legal requirements. When you do any test you’re thinking not just about the science and appropriate scientific test, but also, if this went to court would it stand up? You tend to pick up a lot of contacts: chemists, microbiologists, people working with genes, people working with solid fuels, ex-mariners out in oil fields, people from the Environment Agency…
How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for your field, and how much can this be expected to rise? 
We find it hard to get chemistry graduates, which is a good core subject which you can teach other things from. Graduates tend to make £15/16K just out of university. Three years of experience plus a post-grad in your mid-twenties will get you £30K. A public analyst makes between £40-60K, but Scottish labs pay more like £80-90K. There are only 42 public analysts in the whole country and two a year pass the qualification. We have our own Association of Public Analysts
What’s the most unexpected thing about your job? 
People don’t normally know what we do, but when they find out they think it’s really interesting. It’s multi-disciplinary, we work on small projects, and test food. At least half of what we test we find problems with
Would you say you have a good standard of living/ work-life balance? 
I have a good standard of living. I spend too much time at work and not enough time at home. Working at a senior level equals long hours. People lower down don’t make the same sacrifices
What do your friends and family think about your job? 
My family is quite proud of what I am. Most of my friends think it’s a good job but some don’t quite understand it. Friends think I get on my soap box when I tell them not to eat things. Technicians I work with often do meat analysis on sausages and have a hard time eating them for awhile afterwards!
What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax? 
DIY, motorbikes and driving
Why did you choose to apply for CSci and what do you value most about being a Chartered Scientist? 
CSci helps with the profession I’m in where I have to go to court and give evidence as an expert witness. It aids legal status. The private company I work for does work with solicitors and other big companies who want to see your CV – so CSci aids the profession and the company with its status. Chartered status is especially a big deal in Europe, and in industry they do see the importance
How important is CPD? What do you think of the revalidation process in ensuring that CSci is a mark of current competence? 
I personally believe that you need to keep on top of things…review skills that you’ve got and gaps. CPD and revalidation is a formulized way of demonstrating to other people where you have your competence. New requirements for water testing etc. demand that you have a high standard of CPD. It’s needed for my work
Advice & Reflection
What words of wisdom would you give someone interested in getting into your field? 
My advice would be, if you’re going to get a degree, get a pure degree like chemistry or biology. Be careful about getting mixed degrees because the number of jobs is much more restricted. Get a degree where you can get some industrial experience. Work experience gives you the edge. If you’re applying for jobs you need to emphasize your work ethic and be prepared to do the hours, learn, and start at the bottom and work your way up. A lot of people think they’re entitled to a lot at the beginning. You need to continually re-evaluate your skills and your career
How important is the mentoring process in your field and to you personally? 
I mentor two people. I’m an internal mentor at a laboratory run by the RSC doing MVQ Level 5. I’ve also got a trainee public analyst under me and I’m mentoring her through the exam. It’s quite important to give people support while you can otherwise a lot of people can flounder. I’ve also benefitted from having mentors
How would you define “professionalism”? 
Professionalism is a certain persona when you meet people… a business-like attitude. When you’re looking at science you’re meant to be impartial…you know what the results people want are, but you tell them as they are. You do analysis, you use your abilities to find out what’s being asked. You don’t get cross when you explain things, you give people the science honestly and with your full attention
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist? 
That I’d made a contribution – a difference – I’d continued the profession and passed the baton
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