Nationwide Laboratories

An interview with Helen Evans on embracing life in all directions.

by Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS

When Gwenyth Paltrow famously missed her train, we all thought about our own “sliding doors” moment. Helen Evans thought she was going to be a vet, but instead, a degree in biological sciences with an all-important sandwich year in industry was the path she took. It led to a lifelong career working in veterinary laboratories, and Helen has been the laboratory manager at NationWide Specialist Laboratories in Cambridge for over 20 years.

“I always thought I could have been a very good vet. My schooling had been a bit different to most. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I went to boarding school at the age of six. When I was 12, and we moved home to the UK, I went to an all-girls school. So then, when it was time for my O levels in a co-ed school there were quite a few distractions and I didn’t quite get my anticipated grades.”

It’s clear from talking to Helen that she is very practical and matter of fact, and so it was no surprise that she didn’t waste time licking her wounds, and instead embarked on a new journey into science commencing a degree with a sandwich year in industry. “I went to a polytechnic, and it’s funny – people always looked down on polytechnics, but I feel they steer you towards gaining experience and subsequently getting a job. I spent my time in industry at the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD) developing and running assays for research. That was an amazing place! After graduating I thought about going back and studying veterinary, but I was offered a job at St Thomas’ Hospital in London running the anabolic steroid assays for athletes, and so I took it.”

Helen stayed in London at St Thomas’s for 18 months, but a true country girl at heart, the city wasn’t the place for her. She applied for a job in a veterinary clinical laboratory in Welwyn Garden City, Serono Laboratories and so began her career in veterinary laboratories.

“The Cambridge lab you see now was set up in 2000, but I’ve actually been here for over 40 years. It was previously owned by another company. It was taken over and sold, but later in collaboration with one of my biggest clients, North Western Labs, we broke away and set up on our own. It was then subsequently sold on and is now what we see as NationWide Specialist Laboratories.

“I’m very proud of the lab, as we have developed it over the years and maintained its specialist status – we perform assays that a lot of other labs cannot do. We also work closely with Cambridge Vet School in developing new assays from scratch. For example, we have developed a normetanephrine to creatinine ratio assay. Prior to our test, samples had to be sent to Utrecht in the Netherlands. It feels great to provide solutions like these. I feel like we make a difference.”

Being a lab manager encompasses more than creating new and exciting assays. Helen is responsible for the day to running of a huge number of specialist endocrine assays. Her role extends to creating the processes and ensuring they are followed, leading the team, handling clients and making sure the lab is performing optimally.

I was intrigued to know which aspect of her job she was most proud of. “I suppose having built it up and built up the volume of assays which we offer, making sure they’re all fit for purpose. I get a lot of satisfaction from that,” Helen commented. “I also spend a lot of time talking to vets and take pride in getting their results to them. They ring up with a problem which I can talk them through, I can follow their samples and get their results and really help solve their issue.”

Helen is the leader of a small but close-knit team in her lab and I was curious about her approach to management. “I’ve always had a very laid-back approach, I’m not into micro-managing. As long as my team do what they are supposed to do, in the right way, in a timely manner, I’m very easy going. I want them to enjoy their work and I want a positive environment.”

She is highly process driven, which she explains is crucial to gaining reliable results. “Clear instructions are key to what we do. Each assay has its own methodology, with all the little things that make a big difference to the samples. I make sure my staff are very well trained but also let them know my door is always open if they have any questions. I would rather they asked a hundred questions than feel they couldn’t ask and then make mistakes. It’s important to me so we can assure quality to our vets.”  

“I’m very proud of the lab, as we have developed it over the years and maintained its specialist status – we perform assays that a lot of other labs cannot do.”

Is she a perfectionist? She struggled to answer. “In some instances, yes, I am, but in other ways I wouldn’t call myself one. But I do like it to be right and I like things to be very organised – although my office is the opposite to that, it’s an organised chaos! Perfectionist is a difficult word; I’d never describe myself as one. In fact, I can’t see mess, I’m terrible for piling things on the floor or filling the kitchen with paperwork. I’m the complete opposite to my partner in that respect!” she laughs.

Life at home, in her kitchen full of paperwork, is centred around animals. An avid dog lover, Helen breeds Large Munsterlanders. “They’re beautiful” she exclaims, “I got my first Munster in 1988, she was a pet, but I got into showing and then into the working side too and she became a champion. That led me to breed from her and I’ve bred ever since. I’m very fanatical about my breeding to make sure its spot on.” She reflects, “When you learn about genetics in the classroom it seems boring, but when you apply it to real life, to dog breeding, it’s really interesting. I did a dog breeding course with with the Canine Studies Institute, the Dog Breeding Certificate (DBC) and my subject was ‘choosing a stud dog for your bitch’ looking into all aspects including inbreeding coefficients. It was fascinating.”

“I make sure all the puppies go to good homes, and in the past, I have had to turn a prospective buyer away. Occasionally I might get one back, but that’s normally due to a marriage break down or illness. I always ask people why they want a Munster, and I figure if I can’t put them off buying one, then they will be a committed family home.”

“We also breed and rear ornamental ducks. We have over 200 different species of ducks, and probably over 2000 ducks! We were able to buy the field behind our house from the farmer so have 37 acres to enjoy. We built a big pond for them and this summer my partner is building a summer house by the pond.”

As a result of all of the animals, Helen’s weekends are busy. “There is always a lot of work to do. I really like to try and sleep at the weekends – I’m not a morning person – but I’m outside at 7am each day feeding the ducks! Oh, and pygmy goats too, we recently got a few of them.” It’s a far cry from London where her working career began. “We live down a long track. I like the peace and quiet,” she confides.

There is no doubt Helen is extremely happy and settled in the life she has created for herself, and it’s clear that she has done it on her own merit. “My father taught me to work for everything you want. He was the estate manager for J Lyons on the tea estate, that’s why we were in Africa. My parents were in Malawi, and I was at school in Zimbabwe until we moved back to the UK when I was 12, with not very much money. With my father, what you saw was what you got, no frills. I think I get that from him. When I left school, I took on four jobs to buy and run my car and that work ethic has always stayed with me.”

I was curious to know more about her time in Zimbabwe. “It’s funny, I have some very vivid memories and some I can barely remember. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, as my parents were in Malawi and I wouldn’t fly back there for school holidays, and I can describe the house I grew up in there in great detail. But I really don’t have many memories of the boarding school, other than knowing it wasn’t very pleasant to begin with. But it helped make me who I am today. I feel like I can go anywhere and talk to anyone. By the time I was a teenager I was very self-reliant.”

Helen recently returned to Malawi for a month-long trip, and exclaims, “Oh it was lovely!” She is a keen traveller: “I love being abroad! I’ve been to the Seychelles six times; it’s the most wonderful place in the world. We go to Bird Island. It’s a tiny island which you can walk around in two hours and it’s full of birds. I love travelling, we go all over the place; Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India… I like heat…!”

There should be more travelling on the agenda for Helen, as her plans for 2024 are to cut back to a three-day week, although I could tell she herself wasn’t entirely convinced this would happen. I conclude the interview with the same question I always ask, “How would you describe yourself in one sentence?” and she didn’t disappoint, responding with: “Easy going, confident, alive and enjoying life!”

Nationwide Laboratories

NationWide Laboratories is committed to making a positive impact on animal health by offering innovative products, technology and laboratory services to your veterinary practice. They have been providing a comprehensive range of veterinary diagnostic services since 1983. Their expert teams can assist you in making decisions on relevant testing for companion, exotic and farm animals. They offer full interpretation in a range of testing areas including biochemistry, haematology, cytology, histopathology, endocrinology, microbiology, etc. Their sample collection service is powered by National Veterinary Services.



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