Tucked away behind King’s Cross St Pancras station, the Francis Crick Institute blends in with every other uber-modern building touching the clouds across London. But there’s a difference. ‘The Crick’ takes its name from Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Inside, some 1,500 staff develop cutting edge biomedical research with the intention of better understanding living organisms and tackling the diseases of the day.
Currently employed full-time at the Crick Institute, Fatemeh Abolverdi and Tasnim Ali are on a day release programme, balancing working life with one day per week of further training at City and Islington College.
Fatemeh tells me that she didn’t always intend to take this route. “I went to university in 2011, to study Pharmaceutical Science. Unfortunately I couldn’t finish my course, and started looking for a job in science. All of my experience was in the sciences, but I needed a qualification. Then I found this apprenticeship. I wouldn’t have believed that somewhere like the Crick would have apprenticeship programmes, but they cater for all levels and pathways.”
One year into the Camden Council-organised apprenticeship, Fatemeh has accepted a full-time role in Cell Services and spends one day a week brushing up on her theory at the Centre for Applied Sciences in Angel. “There’s a lot that you learn on the job,” she explains, “but the college has been great in giving us a proper foundation for scientific knowledge. It means we can go into new things with confidence of the basics. Now, staff come to us for training on things like the use of safety equipment because the College has helped us get the essentials right.
“Today, even though our colleagues all have top degrees from top universities, we’re treated as equals on our apprenticeship because we’ve shown we can do the job to the same level.”
We speak about the apprenticeship and how Tasnim how she knew it was the course for her. Not knowing exactly what she wanted after completing her further education elsewhere, the apprenticeship gave Tasnim a chance to feel her way around the sector:
“For me, this was a better option than university. You don’t just learn the theory and get thrown into a job; this option let me earn while learning and gaining experience, which made it possible around other obligations.” But it goes beyond the job. “Getting into that nine-‘til-five routine, learning to talk to different kinds of people, adjusting to different shifts; you find out what kind of person you are and work out how to play to your strengths.
“When I was applying for the apprenticeship, one of the labs I worked in was the fly lab. When I started, I realised how much I enjoyed it, despite how I initially felt about working with flies. You don’t know what you’re going to like just by reading the textbook. You have to go and do it.”
Fatemeh elaborates: “A lot of people go to university because they think that’s the only way, and the name ‘apprenticeship’ gets a bad look. At university I went on a placement and realised that the theory I was learning was totally different to what I wanted to do in the workplace. On this apprenticeship programme, what I learn on my day release at City and Islington College is built around what I’m already doing here day to day. So I know that what I’m learning is relevant and I know that this is something I want to do, because I’m doing it.”
After a tour of the facilities, the pair are keen to tell me about some of the recent work they’ve been doing. “On one occasion,” they explain, “we provided antibodies to a scientist for them to use in a research project. The project had been running for a couple of years and our sample allowed them to finish their work. An awarding body gave them an award worth two to three million pounds. That gave us a good reputation in the Crick; it’s great seeing our work going beyond the office and having an impact we can be proud of.”
Before heading back to work, Fatemeh and Tasnim take a moment to reflect on their position as women working in what may be considered a traditionally ‘male-dominated’ field. Tasnim tells me there’s no place for discrimination in their experience.
“Whatever background you come from, it doesn’t mean your ability to do the work is any different to anybody else. This is a really hot topic at the moment; we just did a photo-shoot to raise awareness for women going into STEM subjects, and want to encourage people that science is open to everybody. It’s about equality of opportunity.”
The de-stigmatisation of the apprenticeship has done much for people like Fatemeh and Tasnim, looking for a way to up-skill without education becoming an obstacle. On International Women’s Day, Fatemeh worked with Camden’s apprenticeship programme as a role model for young women considering STEM careers. “I said that as a woman, you can go as high as you want to go. If anything, women get more support going into the industry, I think.”
“I don’t think there is a barrier.” Tasnim summed up. “I do think that your hard work pays off. However hard you want to work, that’s what you get out.”
Fatemeh added: “If you want to learn and progress to the next level, your manager will help you find a higher level course with a connection to the Crick. We started as Level 3 apprentices and received a raise within a year. If we want more from our work, we know how to get it. And our manager always asks for our input on things – that helps.
“There is no limit stopping us from getting a higher position.”