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Desley Pitcher - Product Specialist, Automation and Drug Discovery

Desley Pitcher
‘The best part of the job is meeting new people all the time, and learning about the science they’re doing.

I didn’t really know a lot about things like forensic science before I started, and I’ve gotten to learn about the process of DNA analysis as part of my job.

So I’m learning new science and meeting new people, and it’s fun and interesting and challenging.’

If you’ve always had a warm spot for R2-D2, Futurama’s Bender or the Jetsons’ Rosie, this job could be for you.

Desley’s job involves selling robots to scientists and training them on their use. Such robots are used in experiments and tests to help with handling liquid and samples. Desley aspired to be a maths teacher until she found herself working with state-of-the-art robots at a pharmaceutical lab. Since then she’s found her niche as a national expert in automation – and she loves it.

What does your job involve?

I’m the national product specialist for automation and drug discovery, which are the product lines I look after for the company PerkinElmer. This covers liquid handling robotics and screening reagents, which are chemical kits to look for drugs for various disease areas like cancer, inflammation and metabolic disorders.

FYI Reagent means: – a substance used in chemical analysis because of the reactions it causes.

The majority of my time is spent in sales. The first stage is the pre-sales component, which involves consulting with the sales team and with the customer to decide on the best robot for their application. We have to get involved quite heavily with the customer and talk about their applications and what processes they need to automate.

Once the customer has purchased the system, I train the staff and let them become experts to develop their own programs and help to optimise the robot for their application. Then there is also troubleshooting and further development of their robot. I also have a product management role which involves marketing for the product line and managing the overall business – looking after budgets, expected sales and keeping the sales team informed of any changes.

Can you explain a bit more about the robots – what exactly do they do?

They are liquid handling robots, basically robotic arms which hold tips that pick up liquid and move it from place to place. A scientist in the lab would normally use handheld pipettes and the robot is like four or eight of those pipettes joined together so that they can do multiple transfers at once. It’s automated so the user can walk away and let the robot do the work. You can fill up a microplate with reagents for an assay – we can do things like plate replication, which means you have a mother plate and copy it into multiple daughter (or copy) plates. We have a robot with a head that has 96 disposable tips so it can transfer 96 samples at once. Then you can add incubators and shakers to the robot and do an entire assay at once. Also, you can integrate it to a plate reader and it will give you a readout at the end of the run – for example, a fluorescence or absorbance readout.

FYI Assay means: – analysis or test of a substance.
Incubator means: – a device in which substances or cultures are kept at a constant temperature.

What qualifications do you have?

I did a Bachelor of Applied Science majoring in Chemistry, followed by Honours in Toxicology and a Masters in Biochemistry.

What jobs have you had previously?

After university I got a job at a pharmaceutical company’s lab which had state-of-the-art, really high-end robotics and I really enjoyed working with them.

I guess there was a bit of serendipity when the person who was working with the robots left the company and there was a gap. Once I’d had training, I loved it and had so much fun. I was lucky enough to get training from the US, and I developed a bit of a flair for programming and maintaining the systems. I did that for five years, after which I was approached by PerkinElmer to see if I was interested in a specialist role – and I jumped at the chance.

What skills and characteristics do you need to get into this job?

You need patience and good interpersonal skills, and a bit of a flair for teaching because you spend a lot of time dealing with customers who may not have experienced automation before. You have to be able to get the message across effectively to a wide range of people, from scientists to technicians.

You need to be comfortable with public speaking because you end up doing a lot of seminars and presentations to customers. Self-confidence is important, and I’ve discovered that you really have to believe in the product you’re selling. If you don’t believe in it then the customers won’t have confidence in it either.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The best part of the job is meeting new people all the time, and learning about the science they’re doing. I didn’t really know a lot about things like forensic science before I started, and I’ve gotten to learn about the process of DNA analysis as part of my job. So I’m learning new science and meeting new people, and it’s fun and interesting and challenging.

The worst part for me – and this probably wouldn’t be the worst part for other people – is the constant travel. I have been in the job for four-and-half years and I travel on average every second week because I support the entire country. We have over 80 robots so I’m travelling quite a bit, particularly to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, and I live in Brisbane. I worked out that I did around 28 return trips in 2009.

What advice would you give to someone considering moving into the field?

You will need a science degree and it would be useful to have experience with automation, or at least with running biological assays. Be prepared for long hours, challenging situations and long travel, but also prepare to have fun and meet lots of people. You get a lot of support from the company and plenty of training, so you become the expert.

What’s the advantage of having a science degree to get into sales?

I think there is nothing better than having a salesperson with a science background talking about the products. I used to buy robots back when I was working at the drug lab, and it was always clear when a salesperson didn’t have a science background: they didn’t know answers to questions and had to contact companies in the US for the answers. I think if you have the knowledge you get with a science background, you can understand the application before you go into the sales meeting and then you definitely have an advantage over other salespeople.

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