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Working at Puraffinity

Dr Alex James discusses his work as a Product Development Scientist at Puraffinity.

  • Name: Alex James
  • Current position: Product Development Scientist
  • Organisation: Puraffinity
  • Date of interview: October 2022
Headshot of Alex James.

Give a brief overview of your organisation.

Puraffinity are a new start-up company focussed on solving the PFAS problem. PFAS, or, perfluoro alkyl/aromatic substances, are a group of over 9000 compounds which are persistent in water sources around the world. It is estimated that 9 in 10 people have PFAS in their blood which is terrifying given that they have been linked to causing cancer and found to exacerbate symptoms of COVID. Once in the body, it takes around 20 years to degrade given that PFAS are so stable in the environment. At Puraffinity we are designing bespoke new generation sorbent materials to specifically remove PFAS from water and deliver safe drinking water to the world. Most sorbents are not designed to remove PFAS from the water and as such cannot remove them down to the required ppt (parts per trillion) levels which are deemed to be safe. 

If you know of any, could you tell us a bit more about adjacent roles to your own?

Within our company we have many different roles. Workers who are predominantly lab based are the product development team, where I work, and the engineering team. The engineers’ primary job is to perform tests on our media and assess how its performance compares to past iterations of our media as well as compare it to the current PFAS solutions on the market. They also work closely with our external scale-up partners designing in-house setups to mimic those in industry and ensure that our media will be able to be synthesised under these conditions.

Outside of the lab, we have a marketing team which works more on the promotional aspects of our work such as arranging press releases, managing our social media, working on the website and meeting potential customers and make new contacts we could potentially work with.  

Give a brief overview of your role.

In my role I work in the product development team as a scientist designing and improving the performance of our sorbent materials. My job is predominantly lab based carrying out experiments on our sorbent media which is split between synthesis and optimisation as well as material testing specifically looking at performance trying to draw correlations between performance and functionality. However, I also have a lot of non lab-based tasks which involve liaising with other teams within the organisation such as the engineering or marketing team, but also engaging with external stakeholders and aiding our scale-up process. I am also a member of the newly formed D&I group within our company which is a great way of doing things outside of my role which I am passionate about.  

Give a brief overview of your professional experience.  

My academic journey was a fairly common one compared to any other postdoc. I started my undergraduate degree, an MChem in chemistry in 2012 until 2016 before then immediately taking a PhD in 2016. After completing my PhD studies, I started a postdoc at the end of 2019 at the University of Liverpool before leaving at the end of 2021 to start my first job in industry here at Puraffinity.

Where my journey deviates from “the norm” was at my time in Liverpool, where I began to engage with Prosper in the second year of my postdoc. At that time, I was becoming quite disillusioned with my postdoc as I felt that I was stagnating and I no longer wanted to carry on in academia. However, because I have had no experience of anything else other than academia in my career thus far I didn’t know what to do or how to get out of it.

This was where Prosper came in so useful and turned out to be an invaluable tool for me to engage with which culminated in me achieving my first job beyond academia. Looking back now both my academic journey and my engagement with Prosper have played equal roles in getting me to where I am today. My studies taught me the knowledge and developed the skills I need to thrive in my current role as a research scientist. Prosper gave me the ability and confidence to take that leap and look for roles beyond academia and realise what I really love about my job and helped me find a job which offers all those things. 

Why do you do your job?  

First and foremost, I do my job because I love it. I have always loved working in a lab, carrying out research and seeing my ideas come to life (and also not) but being able to realise why my ideas didn’t work and learn from that. I love experimentation and digging into a problem to trying to solve it by applying what I have learnt to far and when it goes wrong learning from that and moving forward. Yes, there are elements about my job which I dislike, one of the pieces of advice my coach gave me which I still carry with me is that “the dream job doesn’t exist”.

Every job comes with those bits which no one likes doing, I am yet to meet a person who is passionate about writing a risk assessment (and honestly, I probably don’t want to meet that person). Equally, there are admin tasks which seem redundant and hard to find motivation to do. But overall, there is much more about my role that I love compared to the elements which I dislike. Furthermore, beyond my day-to-day tasks, the atmosphere and general feeling I get at this job is much more positive compared to my postdoc.

I adored the people that I worked with in academia and still have many friends in all the places I have worked. However, at times I would find myself questioning why I am doing this research? Is it truly important or is it just for a paper and then we move on? Am I helping anyone with this work? In my job now I can see the end goal, I know that my contribution will make an actual difference to the lives of people and that in itself gives me so much more motivation and gets me through the tough times. 

The reason I chose to work at Puraffinity is because I felt that the company was very aligned with my own values and motivations to do research. From initial conversations with my now boss and others at the company I felt that the problem they were trying to solve was a key problem which hadn’t previously gotten much attention. Furthermore, working in a start-up company felt very exciting and it was interesting to see the differences and indeed similarities of carrying out research in industry compared to academia.

Finally, working on solving the PFAS problem seemed to me to be very exciting as it is an area I hadn’t really heard of and when I did some research into it I was shocked that it had not received the attention I felt it merited given the severity of the problem. For anyone who, like me, had no real idea of the scale of the problem I recommend you read the book Exposure by Robert Bilott which was later turned into a film called Dark Waters (the hulk is in it!). 

What is it about the industry that keeps you motivated?

Within my organisation there is a clear development progression from a graduate scientist role all the way up to a senior scientist position. At each level there are criteria which must be met and these criteria are dictated by your role. Thus, there is a large emphasis on R&D, analysis, QSHE (Quality, Safety, Health and Environment) within my role and to progress I have to demonstrate how I have met the standards required for my level of seniority and how I can meet the requirements for the next step up.

More broadly, within the area of water treatment there are many jobs available from scientist roles developing sorbent media, to analytical scientist jobs and then engineering roles which focus on testing of media and how water is treated.  

My company offers a lot of development opportunities for me to take advantage of. First and foremost, each employee has access to a £2000 personal development budget which they can use to pay for training courses and other development opportunities. I have also been afforded the opportunity to travel and visit our external stakeholders such as visiting our scale-up site to assist with larger scale reactions. 

What’s it like working for a Startup (SME) company from your point of view? 

I really enjoy working for a start-up company as the environment is very fast paced and things change a lot. This is both stressful and exciting in equal measures, but it really feels thrilling to be working at the precipice of research and innovation.

There is a lot of differences compared to working in academia such as the way we engage with external stakeholders, the pass/fail criteria new ideas have and are met with, the costing and what is expensive in academia compared to industry and as you can probably tell the language used.

Could you compare and contrast your current position with your time as a postdoc in academia?

Contrary to what you may sometimes hear in academia, industry research is very similar to that of working in academia. Both jobs involve lab work, both involve analysis and data interpretation, both require you to summarise and present new data to colleagues and external partners via written reports or oral presentation.

Therefore, I would say that all of the skills I used in academia I still use in industry. The key differences I can see working in industry is the way that we work. For example, in academia people are more paper orientated whereas in academia there is less emphasis on publishing papers and more so on patents and getting results for customers and other stakeholders.  

Could you describe the application process from your point of view? 

I was actually approached by a recruiter on LinkedIn for this role so never directly applied via the website in the usual fashion. Instead, I had just made my LinkedIn profile which was a result of attending the LinkedIn session Prosper ran and a few weeks later I was contacted by a recruiter saying that they have a position I may be an ideal fit for.

So, I applied for the role as per instructions from the recruiter which was very similar to a normal application process and involved sending across a CV to the recruiter, then having a technical interview with a manager at Puraffinity before a personality test and then a final interview with the CEO and another manager. I remember thinking at the time that the process seemed to be very long and very different to any interview I did for my postdoc and PhD. But I never felt nervous about the process and I think some of that stemmed from the fact that I was approached rather than seeking out the job and thinking how amazing it would be if I got it. Taking that pressure away, which we often put on ourselves, made the whole process a lot more comfortable.  

If I was to give any top tips for the application process I would say, first and foremost, have some respect for yourself and see yourself as an asset that any company would be lucky to have and not that you would be lucky to be hired. Also, understand that the application process can be quite longwinded and can move very slowly, but don’t worry about this and be constantly checking your emails.

Finally, be confident and read up on what the company stands for, why they are doing what they do and what gap you would fill for them if you were hired. 

Could you describe your first few weeks/months in your current position?

My first few months in my role were very fast moving and different from the slower moving world of academia. I also happened to join the week before we were moving into our new office and lab building so my first weeks involved a lot more cellotape and bubble wrap than I expected!

Beyond the packing and unpacking I spent the first few weeks simply getting up to speed with how the company works, what lab work goes on as standard, meeting everyone in my team and the wider company and just general new starter admin type work. I would say after 3 or so weeks, once my training was complete, is when I actually started doing work which resembles my job now. This was fine though because those first few weeks of getting to grips with how things are done was key to allowing me to settle in.

Puraffinity run an early success programme which makes getting to grips with the new role very easy to do and makes starting a new job much less pressured. I really enjoyed the change of scenery when I started and though I was a little nervous, it was my first job beyond academia, I was confident that I made the right decision and it was really exciting to be starting a job in industry.  

What would be your top tip for getting a role in your organisation/function? 

In my specific role it was pivotal for me to have a degree in the area of materials science, chemistry or a degree discipline related to chemistry and water treatment research. This is very much the case for most industry jobs within companies who offer lab-based jobs as it is obviously integral to have that knowledge and experience. However, that is not to say that all the roles within the organisation apply the same stringent rules. Nor is it also true that you need to have postdoc experience or indeed a PhD either. 

I would say that, for me, networking played a big role in me getting my position given that I was approached by a recruiter who looked at my LinkedIn profile and chose to contact me based on the information on there. Hence, I think its key, particularly when looking for a new role but also every day, to keep up with this side of networking and make sure that you are connected with people who are looking to hire in areas you may want to work in.

A lot of the time it is literally as simple as listing key words on your profile or saying that you are looking for work and you will be found by recruiters and from there you can either apply for the roles they suggest or stay connected and work your way in to their network and continue to grow your own.   

Any other comments/tips/insights for other postdocs looking to move into a similar role to your own?

The main thing I would say, and Prosper really helps with this, is to simply be open to jobs beyond academia. It is so easy to think only about academia and only see a career for you in that area as that is all most postdocs have ever known. Certainly, this was very true for me and I didn’t even know where to begin when thinking about a job beyond academia. However, just exploring the various areas out there which you may be interested in is a great way to see that there are so many jobs out there which you have the skillset for.

Your PhD and postdoc have given you so many skills which are desirable for so many different jobs and not just one niche job working in the area you are currently in. Reach out to people on LinkedIn, email people working for companies you think are interesting, ask you PI or former group members if they know of anyone who has left the group to take up a job outside of academia.

All these things will give you an idea as to what’s out there and you may end up discovering a job role which sounds ideal for you.  

Resources

Puraffinity website

Contact Dr Alex James

LinkedIn

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