Favourite Thing: Being the first person to see what a protein looks like in 3D is amazing. Then, trying to figure out how it functions based on how it looks and interacts with other proteins and drugs.
I went to South Holderness School in East Yorkshire, then Cambridge in 1998 where I got my degree in biochemistry. In 2001 I went to Oxford for my PhD in structural biology.
I have A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, Maths and General Studies (do they still do that?). My degree was in biochemistry and my PhD/D.Phil was on the structural biology of proteins in the immune system.
After my PhD I spent six and a half years working as a post-doctoral researcher at Newcastle University. Since September I have been setting up my own lab in Edinburgh, which is really exciting, but quite scary.
Me and my work
I am a structural biologist looking at how we can get bacteria to make medicines and other useful molecules inside compartments within their cells.
I am really interested in how proteins and enzymes in cells work and my research is focused on looking at how bacteria survive and are able to adapt themselves to different environments and food sources. By understanding how bacteria that cause disease survive in humans and animals, we can figure out how to make better antibiotics.
Bacteria are also a source of new antibiotics against other bacteria as they are always in competition with each other in their environments, so one part of my research is looking how we can get harmless bacteria to make new antibiotics and drugs for us by using the machinery they have inside their cells.
I work in a field called structural biology, where we look at the detailed shape of proteins using techniques like X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy. These allow us to make models of how proteins look and how they interact with each other and drugs to see how they work. Once we know their structure, other scientists can design better drugs and antibiotics.
My Typical Day
Get coffee, check my email, then I usually chat with a student and plan their experiments before heading into the lab, seminar, or meeting room.
I live in Newcastle, which is quite a trek to my work in Edinburgh, so I do a lot of reading on the train and prepare my self for the day in the lab. When I get into work I turn my computer on and grab a coffee while I check my emails to see what’s happening with the latest scientific journals and if I have any meetings coming up. At the moment I have an undergraduate student in the lab doing his final year project, he is with me full time until May and it is a great opportunity for the students to get proper experience of working in a lab on a real project. We chat for a while about the experiments he will be doing today and then head into the lab.
We do a lot of different types of experiment, so no two days are the exactly the same, but at the moment we are trying to extract some proteins from bacteria to see how the proteins work as enzymes.
Lunch happens whenever we have an experiment on that we can leave for ten or more minutes, sometimes I get a leisurely break where I can do some reading, or writing, but mostly I have to quickly eat something to get back into the lab for an experiment finishing.
The afternoon usually has more experiments and there’s no set finishing time, although the undergraduates aren’t allowed to work past 5pm.
Other days I’ll have meetings with other students, people I work with, or I’ll be teaching undergraduates, so I won’t get quite so much time in the lab. There’s always a lot of writing that needs to be done, whether it is scientific papers, reports, applications for funding for students, or other staff, health and safety forms. Usually I do what writing I can on the train home as it is quiet and there is no one distracting me.
When I get home I’ll usually chat to my wife about science while we are getting our daughter ready for bed and having our dinner. She’s a scientist too, so it’s not entirely boring for her, but I think she might think I talk about science too much.
What I'd do with the money
Make some 3D models of the proteins and molecules I work with for hands on demonstrations of how they interact with each other.
I think it is really useful to have actual physical models of the proteins that I work on when I am talking to my students and school groups about the work I do. Having something solid to show them, helps them to relate to what I am doing. I would spend the money on a few more models, to expand the range of proteins I talk about and show how proteins bind to each other and to certain drugs.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious science nerd
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Belle and Sebastian
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Science fun has to be the travel, I’ve been to Brasil, Australia, America, France and Italy with my job. Non-science has to be my wedding, honeymoon in Vegas and playing with my one year old daughter.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Wish number one would be to have enough money to be able to do science wherever in the world I wanted. Wish two would be for the ability to teleport, it would make getting to work so much easier. Wish three would be to have more time, ideally immortality, but another two hundred years would be a good start, there are so many things I want to see and I w ant more time with my family.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
During a GCSE practical class I filled a sink with sand and flooded the whole lab. That day it wasn’t just me either. The same lesson one of my friends broke a mercury thermometer and another pupil set fire to a notice board with a bunsen burner.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I got a paper in Science Magazine, which was probably my scientific highlight.
Tell us a joke.
Two bacteria walk into a bar, the bartender says ‘we don’t serve bacteria in here’, the bacteria reply ‘it’s okay, we’re staph.’