We found Dr. Sam Decombel on Twitter and were inspired by how she could mix science and art in her job. Sam owns PlayDNA a company which makes DNA portraits with meaning! George from the Lab_13 Irchester committee interviewed her and here’s what happened!
When did you first start thinking about a career in science?
I don’t think I really started to think about a career in science until I had to choose my A-level options (I went for Biology, Chemistry and Physics). To be completely honest, I don’t think I was even considering a career of any sort at this time either! Instead I chose to take these subjects because I had always enjoyed them, found the natural world fascinating and was quite good at biology (not so much at physics it has to be said, but I still enjoyed the lessons!). I have always said that if you keep doing the things you enjoy, you’ll find you end up doing a job that you love – very important given you may be doing it for 50+ years!
Did you have any other hobbies at the time?
I have had a lot of hobbies, although probably my first big obsession was with palaeontology, and in particular dinosaurs! There was a magazine series out when I was about 9 or 10 years old called ‘Dinosaurs!’ and I collected each issue every week without fail, building up a model T-rex and learning all the dinosaur names off by heart. My favourite was stegosaurus; I loved its diamond-shaped plates and spiky tail. I was also a big fan of any nature programmes, and especially used to love The Really Wild Show, which was a wildlife show in the 80s/90s. You can still see the presenters Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan on TV now, presenting Springwatch (Winterwatch at the moment – a great programme if you’re interested in our beautiful native wildlife).
Only around 15% of people that study for a PhD go on to become academics. That doesn’t mean that the skills we learnt during our PhD’s are wasted though. A PhD gives you lots of what we call ‘transferable skills’, which basically means you can apply them to lots of other areas of life and work. It teaches you to work independently, to be organised and plan your time well. It also teaches you to think critically, and question everything you read rather than take things for granted. These are skills that are very useful in lots of other types of work. I have friends with PhDs that went on to become: teachers, medics, physiotherapists, medical writers, business managers and even an accountant!
For me, I decided I enjoyed and was better cut out for helping other researchers commercialise their research, and get the fantastic technologies they were developing into products that could benefit us all. This is what I did (as a Technology Transfer Manager) for the first three years after I graduated.
How did you get the idea for your business?
A friend contacted my other half and I about something he had found during a gift search for his sister – DNA Art. He knew we both studied genetics so thought we would be interested. We both thought this was really cool, and went straight online to have a look. Well, we soon realised that the ‘DNA Art’ that was out there wasn’t quite as exciting as we had hoped. The genetic profiling was randomised, so there was no way to tell if a picture was your DNA or that of a banana! Also, it couldn’t tell you anything about yourself, which didn’t seem very interesting to us. We thought we could do it better, more personalised and more interesting, and so we decided to go ahead and try.
What made you think of the name PlayDNA?
We spent ages thinking of different names for our company and arguing over which we liked/ didn’t like! I quite liked the name ‘Lab Monkeys’ but we couldn’t get the website URL (.com or .co.uk) for this, so had to go back to the drawing board. We did a big idea cloud putting down all the words we wanted to associate with our business and then playing around with them. We knew the name had to be easy to say, easy to spell and preferably short. PlayDNA seemed to fit well, so we went with it.
Definitely both! The subjects I excelled at most during school were science and art. Most of the time I painted animals and plants too! Here is a picture I painted when I was 15 years old, of a tiger in the snow. I gave it to my boyfriend as a present at the time and we still have it on the wall now! You don’t have to be just one or the other; in fact many of my scientist friends are incredibly creative, which helps in their research as you need to be creative to come up with new ideas sometimes.
How would you explain “eloquent molecular genetics techniques” to an 8yr old?
‘Molecular genetics’ is simply the study of what genes look like and how they work at the molecular level (in this case the building blocks of DNA are the molecules – G, A, T, C). What we meant by this sentence was the technique that I use in the lab to create the DNA images is a manual skill that requires great practice and precision as you are studying single molecule changes in the DNA sequence e.g. an ‘A’ changing to a ‘T’. The image is not computer-generated (as some other DNA Art is) and so, like a piece of handmade pottery, every piece is unique.
What I should have written of course is ‘elegant’ rather than ‘eloquent’ (which is in relation to speech) as you have just so eloquently bought to my attention (even us scientists can sometimes make silly mistakes)! 😉
What’s been the hardest/best thing in setting up your own business?
There have been lots of challenges in setting up our own business, but probably the hardest has been the uncertainty of how it will all turn out. When you have a normal job, you know you will be paid a certain amount at the end of the month, and you can budget what you can or can’t afford. When you are setting up your own business you have no idea how many sales you might take in a month – some months it might be lots and other months it might be none at all! As a result you have to be very careful with how much you spend and make sure you have put some money aside for months when you might get less than you expect. However it can be very exciting when things go well and you make lots of sales!
The best thing has definitely been the independence running your own business gives you. I can work when I am at my most productive (usually the evenings in my case, as my DNA proves, I am a bit of a night owl!) and take time off when I need it, although to be honest I work harder now than I have ever done and that’s because I enjoy what I am doing so much. Every day is different, I might be researching and writing a blog post on snow leopards one day, in the lab doing experiments the next, then at a wedding fair the following day getting brides enthused about DNA and how exciting it can be (that was a little summary of my last week)!
Setting up PlayDNA wasn’t about being a millionaire Dragon’s Den-style entrepreneur for me (although obviously I hope to make a living from it), it was about doing something I enjoy and care about, and that makes me happy. I would encourage you all to just keep doing the things you enjoy in school the most, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to be when you grow up, as this way you’ll never be too far away from your perfect job.
Thank you Sam for a brilliant interview!