Ah well, it's been an absolute blast. Thanks to anyone who voted for me and best of luck to Panos, Sarah and Mike.
Hulme Grammar School, Oldham 1979-1986. Oldham College, 1986-1987.
University of Central Lancashire, Biochemistry and Microbiology 1987-1990. University of Newcastle, Masters degree in Biochemistry, 1995-1996, followed by a PhD in Biochemistry, 1996-2000.
Had a Saturday job at Boots when I was at school. Many jobs as a student, ranging from driving a truck to sorting ladies underwear?! Scottish Equitable, Manchester 1992-1995. University of Newcastle, 2000-2003.
Research Fellow, York Structural Biology Laboratory. Research into what proteins from bacteria look like, how they work, how we can target them to kill bugs such as Anthrax and how we can use bacteria to make things for us.
University of York, Department of Chemistry, 2003-present.
Favourite thing to do in my job: What gives the biggest adrenalin rush, the greatest thrill? ……without a doubt, realising you’re the first person, in the world, to see or understand something. I can only compare it to skiing off the side of a mountain strapped to a big parachute, scary and exciting at the same time.
I try to figure out how bacteria work and how we can use this knowledge to fight infection, make something useful or to just know the answer.
I don’t like secrets. The hidden mechanisms of how things work are irritating secrets, I have to know the answers to what, why, when, where, how and who. It was a TV series by David Attenborough, called ‘Life on Earth’, when I was about 10 or 11 years old and my excellent first year Biology teacher, Dr Pearson, that sparked my interest in Biology. At school I was a bit lazy, didn’t get great grades, but squeeked a place at University to study Biochemistry and Microbiology. After Uni the music business beckoned. As I had no musical talent and a desire to be rich, I unsuccessfully tried to be the next Richard Branson. A very good friend (also a scientist) did have talent and was in a successful band, so I still had fantastic ‘musical’ experiences. Eventually, I got a job at a pensions and investment company, but gave up ‘High Finance’ very happily at the age of 27 and paid for myself to do a Masters Degree at the University of Newcastle; I got a great PhD position there too.
I enjoy sport, especially football, cricket and rugby. Following a glittering multi-sport career (at least in my own head) these days I’m more an armchair sportsman. I support my hometown team Oldham Athletic, please don’t laugh, they were once (early 1990’s) in the Premier League, two FA cup semi finals and a League cup final. I keep fit by walking, having the occasional swim or run, growing veg and refusing to give in to my sweet tooth. I read widely, listen to many different types of music, am a technology junkie and will always be up for a discussion on pretty much any subject. I’m married to Sarah, a Geologist turned primary school teacher (Yr5/6) and have a (nearly) 2 year old daughter, Amelia, born after IVF treatment and to whom I very happily devote the majority of my spare time, we also have an old fat cat called Pebbles.
I wear a white lab coat and safety specs, not a good look, but essential. As a Research Fellow my time, roughly, is split equally between carrying out experiments in the lab and working at a computer. I read and write scientific papers/project grant applications, and coordinate the work of PhD, Masters degree (MSc) and undergraduate project students. Attending meetings and conferences all over Europe and in America is an important part of what I do. My lab is part of a large European consortium and I’ve been lucky enough to visit around 20 European cities in 9 countries during the last seven years. I even get to use a particle accelerator for one of the techniques I use in my work (X-ray crystallography).
I research proteins, the products of genes, finding out what they look like (their morphology) and how they function. I investigate proteins from many different types of bacteria including disease-causing bugs (pathogens) such as Anthrax and MRSA, microbes used in the production of Bio-pharmaceuticals and food, and those living in the soil. Bacteria sense their environment and react to it by switching genes on and off. I look at proteins from genes that control the switching called Transcription Factors and genes involved in specific processes such as DNA replication during cell division. With proteins from pathogens, if we know how a protein works we might be able to find drugs that stop it and in that way kill the bug. With proteins from more useful organisms, we want to find a way of improving their activity to help make new antibiotics, better washing powder, Biofuels or green energy. The organisms I find most interesting are the ‘Extremeophiles’, the majority of these belong to a group called the Archaea and inhabit incredibly inhospitable places like deep-sea hydrothermal vents (temp>100°C), highly acidic hot volcanic springs (pH<3, temp>100°C), salty alkali lakes (pH>11) and even ice.
My Typical Day
A good day, email, coffee, email, stare at computer/down microscope, grow some bugs and extract protein, wash hands a lot, make reluctant machine work, see exciting result, dance, make a mistake, feel grumpy, drink tea and read email, read the news online, listen to music, realise mistake wasn’t actually a mistake, get excited again, dance, go home feeling happy.
My ‘Typical’ day? If only!
Email is a pain in the backside sometimes. I expect most IAS2010 scientists say there is no ‘Typical’ day, but I guess, as I do, they’ll start with email. Usually this takes a few minutes, other days there are suddenly 20 more things to do. The only typical thing is that a lab day starts around 08:30am and finishes at 05:30 – 06:30pm; in between (see below) it’s a bit hectic. Between 08.00 and 10.00pm, once my daughter’s in bed, I’ll do another hour or two if something’s urgent, like meeting a writing deadline or analysing results. At this hour America is awake and new articles and papers are hitting the web. I’ll look for anything relevant to my work or see if scientists I follow on Twitter have posted anything intriguing. I stop all work at 10.00pm; in the past I’ve been known to still be going at midnight and beyond. Weekends and early evenings are for my family and me to do everything else we like.
The following things rarely happen in a set order, but here goes. After email and coffee comes admin, reading papers and articles published overnight, reviewing previous results and checking what’s scheduled for that day. An early job is to have a chat with Undergraduate and Master degree project students about their work, as they need looking after closely in the lab by my technician (Sheila) and me. PhD students become independent in the in lab quickly, for them, I have to be available anytime to help analyse results or solve problems. Sheila and I divide up the day’s jobs; she’ll grow bacteria, extract and purify fresh protein, set up crystallisation experiments and check if we have crystals. I’ll usually analyse and test the proteins and/or crystals, review and interpret results, devise new experiments, write, and help Sheila with anything urgent. Our best crystals are sent to the particle accelerator (a Synchrotron) in Oxford or Grenoble, France. There, high energy X-rays are fired at the crystals and data collected. Using some serious computer power and time, the results help me work out what the protein looks like and, combined with other analysis, how it works. Sounds easy? …… I wish! I usually try and finish the lab day with simple admin, planning the next day and possibly 20 min of ‘Me time’ on the web.
What I'd do with the prize money
Fund a free resource pack for local primary schools to borrow, so they can carry out a simple joint experiment and pool all their results for analysis, I’d even throw in (not in the box) a willing scientist to help.
Science is a practical subject and everyone should be able to carry out a real, messy experiment. Not all schools have the resources they need, as there aren’t always funds available to do really good experiments. My idea is to use £500 to fund primary school ‘Science Experiment Resource Packs’, containing virtually all the apparatus needed for a simple experiment. I hope schools could borrow them for free. Furthermore, on the day the experiment is being conducted, a scientist from a nearby University would go to the school, talk about what they do, and help with the experiment. It would have to be local to York University at first, aimed at small rural schools (<100 pupils) and those in more deprived areas of the City. If the packs work, then I’d get companies supplying university science equipment to sponsor the packs and make them more widely available.
An example experiment
A Year 6 experiment for the second half of summer term, it’s the simple extraction of DNA from Kiwi fruit (I’m experimenting to see if it can be done with yogurt, a harmless bacterial culture). A group of schools known as a Cluster, sending their pupils to the same local secondary school, could coordinate performing the experiment in the same week. The children would extract DNA, compare the weight of intact fruit to that of DNA extracted and pool their results online with those from the rest of the Cluster. They would analyse the results as individuals, a class and a Cluster, maybe the secondary school could help with analysis. It would be useful if the secondary school could store the packs and deal with the booking system. The hardware, such as bowls, tubes, safety specs etc. would form the more permanent pieces of kit, along with ideas of what to do. Cheap ‘consumables’ such as salt and ethanol would need to be kept topped up. This experiment demonstrates cells contain DNA, how to extract DNA, how you have improved statistics from many results rather than a few and that scientists are real people too.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, Determined, Hominid
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I worked on an enzyme used as a tool in Molecular Biology from an Archaea bug, called Pyrococcus furiosus (Rushing fireball). The enzyme, a DNA polymerase, has one activity that copies the bug’s DNA and two other activities that help repair ‘mistakes’ in DNA. One of the repair activities meant it could not be used to do a specific reaction in the lab. I identified the activity’s location within the protein molecule and then how to make it a better tool. The modified enzyme is used in labs all over the world to make accurate copies of DNA for analysis. A sample of this protein even went up on a space shuttle!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, got detention a couple of times.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
It changes regularly. I’m going through a 1970’s phase at the moment, listening to Rock bands like Boston and Rainbow.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Most scary fun, paragliding off the side of a mountain in the French Alps. Entertaining fun, taking part in the filming of a music video. Very personal fun, watching my daughter do something for the first time.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’d like my daughter to have a little sister or brother. I’d like my science to be remembered for good reasons. I’d like to go for a curry with David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Carolyn Porco, Richard Dawkins, J. K. Rowling, Ellen MacArthur, Jeremy Clarkson, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lily Allen (Now, there’s an idea for a talk show).
Tell us a joke.
How about a quote from Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors, that could apply to me “He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher…or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.” My wife agrees.