Alistair Brown

Seventh-year student Alistair is working towards his Doctor of Philosophy in Biotechnology.

After working in an unsatisfying job for two years, PhD student Alistair Brown decided he needed a change, and found a passion in bioscience.

Seventh-year student Alistair is working towards his Doctor of Philosophy in Biotechnology after completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours and a major in Cell and Molecular Bioscience.

Not looking for a career

Alistair left school without getting NCEA Level 3 and spent a couple of years working in a job he didn’t really enjoy. Seven years down the track, he’s working on his PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. “I figured one of the easiest ways to change and grow a bit was to go to university and learn some new things. I wasn’t looking for a career.”

Turning points

Alistair started out studying towards a Marine Biology major but after uncovering an unexpected interest in Cell and Molecular Bioscience he changed his major. A 300-level course on Biotechnology was a turning point that led him to appreciate the real-world application of science. “Instead of just learning how a cell works we were learning how you could change a cell to solve a problem. And the labs were much more research focused, doing something no one else had done before. Up until then, labs were more about teaching you how to be a scientist, following a recipe.”

Uncharted waters

For Alistair, the best thing about doing a PhD is the fact you’re in uncharted waters and expected to make a contribution to science. “I think that’s what surprised me most—just how much freedom you’ve got. You’re left alone and you’re allowed to explore and discover new things.”

Testing for diseases

The focus of Alistair’s PhD is an enzyme produced by a bacterial species that makes a blue pigment. He hopes to use it to develop tests for certain diseases. The University's commercialisation office, Wellington UniVentures, is helping to open doors for him. “When we approached Wellington UniVentures we said ‘Hey, we’ve got this test we’re developing, we think it might have some commercial viability.’ They jumped on board really quickly and provided us with additional funding to help improve the product and help with the intellectual property side. They’ve also been great at connecting us to industry partners in New Zealand and overseas.”

Seeing shades of grey

Even before embarking on his PhD, Alistair’s world view had been shifted by his time at University. “You see everything so black and white when you’re young. It’s either right or wrong, you like it or you don’t like it. At university you see so many different opinions, so many different viewpoints and so much conflicting information. It’s opened my eyes to a different world where it’s all shades of grey. And the best part is realising everything’s not as simple as it seems.”

Know your mind

“The University has helped me grow from somebody who didn’t really understand anything and didn’t really have a clear viewpoint, to somebody who knows what they’re doing and where they want to go in life.”