Q&A with Oxford Biotrans scientist, Caitlin Armstrong

Caitlin Armstrong joined Oxford Biotrans just 12 months ago, having completed her Masters working in the research group of the founder at Oxford University.  She enjoyed the work so much she wanted to continue in the field.

Oxford Biotrans is a start-up company that develops high value chemical compounds.  Their first product Nootkatone, provides a natural grade scent and flavour of grapefruit for use in the food and drink industry.  A spin out company from Oxford University, they moved to a purpose built research & development laboratory on Milton Park in 2016.

Q: Who did you want to be when you were a kid? / What was your dream job when you were growing up?
A: From a young age, I had wanted to be a Vet.  This later developed into wanting to be a forensic scientist when I stopped watching reruns of Animal Hospital and started watching Midsomer Murders!

Q: What is the most exciting project you or your company are currently working on?
A: We’re always looking to optimise our biotransformation process to increase the yield of our reactions, so any progress on that is exciting for the company.

Q: What is the best thing about working and/or living in Science Vale?
A: Since my first trip to Milton Park, where I work, I was really taken by how spacious and open it feels.  There’s lots of greenery and it feels fresh, which has always been important to me.

Q: What is your favourite place to get lunch?
A: The food trucks from the Wandering Feast are the highlight of my food week – they visit us every Thursday and rain or shine I’ll be there to get a burger or burrito!

Q: What future technology are you most excited about?
A: I think self-driving cars is a thing to get excited about.  Not only would it hopefully stop congestion, but it would probably be a lot more fuel efficient, which can only be a good thing.

Q: Who has been the biggest positive influence in your life?
A: This was a really tough question, as there were a lot of candidates, but probably my GCSE Chemistry teacher, Mr Smith.  His lessons sparked my enthusiasm for the subject, which ultimately made me go on to do my degree and get the job I’m doing now.

Q: If you were not working in your current field what else would you do?
A: I’ve always enjoyed teaching and passing on knowledge about something I enjoy myself!  So I’d probably be teaching Chemistry, or coaching a sport.

Q: What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in your field (space and satellite applications / life science / advanced engineering / robotics)?
A: I’d definitely say to them “Don’t see lab work as a chore”.  Through school and University, practicals often seemed to be a thing to get over and done with and would get in the way of the rest of your work.  But I think there’s so much to be learned from them from a theory side and having good lab skills is key to the kind of research I do.  Plus, I find it really fun and rewarding when an experiment you’ve designed goes well!

Q: How do you balance your work and personal life?
A: I have quite structured days based around work and (rowing) training.  I find this gives me plenty of balance and I’m good at switching mindsets between the two.  Thankfully, the people I work with are all good friends, so there is a healthy overlap where we can go to the pub after work, or have a board games night.

Q: What is your proudest moment at work?
A: I wouldn’t say I’d pinpoint it to one moment, as I love what I do and any point in a week or month where I feel I’ve made a significant contribution to the progress of the project is a moment to be proud of.