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In Conversation With...Keeley Thwaites

In Conversation With...Keeley Thwaites

As we gear up to celebrate the national Healthcare Science Week, which starts this Friday (6 March), we spoke to one of our own healthcare scientists, Keeley Thwaites. Keeley is our Lead Biomedical Scientist for Immunohistochemistry and Molecular Diagnostics.

She’s also one of four female scientists from our Trust to secure places on a prestigious leadership programme, run by the Office of the Chief Scientific Officer and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). 

Age: 38

Lives: In Chelmsford with husband Graham, who also works at our Trust as Head Biomedical Scientist (Cellular Pathology), they have sons James, five, and Aaron, three. Keeley is also step-mum to Sam, 19, and Nathan, 17.

And: Keeley’s team is doing some exciting work to help us individualise care for our cancer patients – by analysing tumours for protein and gene expressions which help us to prescribe the most effective treatment for each patient.

How did you get into your career as a biomedical scientist?

Before secondary school, I’d wanted to be an actress and enjoyed dancing and singing lessons. However, when I went to Chafford School (now the Harris Academy Rainham), I had a fabulous science teacher who was really enthusiastic and inspiring.

I enjoyed science as it answered questions and enabled me to problem solve.

I went on to do chemistry, biology and physics A-levels, then a degree in biochemistry at Queen Mary University London. I found it fascinating as there’s so much biology going on behind the scenes in our bodies that you can’t see.

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I wasn’t sure about the career I wanted. I didn’t know about healthcare science careers in the NHS, so I worked as an assistant manager at JD Sports while I considered what to do.

I started working for the NHS when I saw an ad for a medical laboratory assistant at Harold Wood Hospital. I thought it would be a good way to get some experience in a hospital laboratory, and I’m still here, 16 years later!

Tell us more about your time at our Trust

I’ve been really lucky with the opportunities I’ve had. After I joined, a trainee biomedical scientist role came up and I completed a post graduate certificate in biomedical science on day release. Then I did the Institute of Biomedical Science certificate of competence portfolio, which meant I could join the Health and Care Professions Council biomedical register and practice as a biomedical scientist.

In 2009 I completed my Masters degree in cellular pathology at the University of Westminster.

Last year I gained my clinical scientist equivalence, which means I can practice as a clinical scientist and now I’m training to become a consultant clinical scientist.

I lead our Immunohistochemistry and Molecular Diagnostics team where we carry out tests on tumour biopsies to identify particular protein and gene profiles. The results help our oncologists see which patients may respond to certain drugs so they can plan individualised treatment for them. It involves a lot of looking down a microscope!

I work closely with our oncologists and pathologists and the work we’re doing helps to influence clinical decisions. I really enjoy applying my scientific knowledge to clinical decision making.

It’s been amazing to see how much has changed in cancer treatment in my time. It can make such a difference to our patients. There is no more ‘one size fits all’. It’s really exciting to know what we’re doing for our patients can help them to live longer.

Before I took over molecular diagnostics in 2017, we sent our samples elsewhere for testing. Now it’s in-house we can turn them around much faster, so we can make treatment decisions more quickly for our patients.

I’ve seen this department flourish in my time here, which I’m really proud of. This is a hospital which my family use, so we try to ensure we treat all our samples as we would want them treated for our own families.

Part of Healthcare Science Week is about raising the profile of the profession, why is that so important?

As we’re not on the frontline seeing patients, many people don’t realise what we’re doing behind the scenes. When I say I work in the NHS I’m often asked if I’m a nurse or doctor, people don’t realise there are healthcare scientists and that we all work together for patients.

We might not see people directly, however, they’re paramount in everything we do. We care about our patients just as doctors and nurses do, that’s why we’re here.

I’m really excited for Healthcare Science Week. We work better together so it will be good to have a platform to promote healthcare science and what we do.

Before I had my sons I was a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassador and would go into schools to encourage young people to consider careers in healthcare science. I found it daunting at first, then I really enjoyed it and found they were really enthusiastic about what we do. We need to be reaching out more.

I also sit on the Institute of Biomedical Science London Cellular Pathology Discussion Group Committee, which promotes continuing professional development. I’m a module leader for MSc in cellular pathology at Anglia Ruskin University, so I mark students’ portfolios. And I lecture at the University of Westminster.

Your eldest son was born at Queen’s Hospital…

James was born by emergency c-section and had hyperinsulinemia, which meant he had too much insulin in his body.

I’m forever grateful to the nurse who spotted the warning signs, as it’s not a usual check for newborns. He was put on a glucose drip and had to spend his first month on our NICU.

We were really well looked after. We have a picture of him in his incubator in our room and it’s hard to believe he was that small now he’s a healthy five-year-old.

What do you like getting up to when you’re not at work?

I go to bounce, which is a trampoline class, and hot yoga. I also still do tap dancing; I’ve danced for around 25 years.

I also dabble in running. I ran the London Marathon in 2013 raising money for Centrepoint and St Francis Hospice.