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Meet the scientists!

My CV

Education:

University of Bristol (1980-83) University College London (1983-87)

Qualifications:

B.Sc. (from Bristol) Ph.D. (from UCL)

Work History:

Been at the University of Manchester since 1987 (really). Spent a couple of Summers at the University of Sydney in Australia, and the year 1997-8 working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington DC, USA.

Current Job:

Lecturer in Physiology. Which is a few jobs in one – research, teaching, admin things, public science stuff

Employer:

University of Manchester

Photo:

Austin Elliott

Arrrgh! Evicted! Curses! And I don't even get to be interviewed dishing the dirt by Davina McCall, let alone Ant'n'Dec. *Sigh* Oh, well... back to the old day job. If only I'd put that pic of myself aged 24 up earlier (scroll down!) it might all have been different....

Favourite Thing: At times I would have said ‘getting to go to conferences in interesting places’, but really it’s just ‘solving puzzles’. The best feeling is definitely when you’ve been struggling to understand something (like the data from your experiments) and you have that ‘light bulb goes on in your head’ feeling that it makes sense.

Me and my work

Thinking about how the insides of cells use ‘instructions’ to decide what the cell should do… trying to explain complicated stuff simply… and fixing microscopes.

We study signals inside cells, particularly calcium ions. When you first start doing biology you probably meet calcium as being important for making bone (which it is) and being in milk (which it is too). But calcium turns out to be one of the key signals INSIDE pretty much all your cells. In particular, fast changes in the calcium levels inside cells – calcium goes up, and down, and up, and so on – are one of the key controllers of what cells are doing second-to-second. Examples you may meet in biology are when muscles (including your heart) contract, or when one neurone (nerve cell) releases a neurotransmitter at the nerve synapse. These things depend on calcium in the cell going up to make the change — contraction, or transmitter release – happen. But there are loads (and loads) more, including when cells in your immune system get switched on, when fertilization occurs, and so on.

We look at these calcium signals, as they’re usually called, in a few different cells, both normal ones and cancer cells. One of our favourite cells is the cell type in your pancreas (ever heard of the pancreas?) that makes most of your digestive enzymes (it’s called an ‘acinar’ cell). Other cells we’ve worked on over the years are heart muscle cells, and the cells that make insulin (Beta-cells), and human pancreatic cancer cells.

Apart from looking at the ‘normal’ calcium signals in these cells, we also look at how the signals are changed in disease states. One big thing we look at is diseases associated with ‘free radical production’ – that is, when the body seems to make too many free radicals, which are super-reactive molecules that can cause all kinds of damage in the body. One disease like this that we’ve been working on for quite a few years is pancreatitis, which as the name suggests is a disease of the pancreas.

Interestingly, a lof of stuff in our lab at the moment (and in other people’s labs too, of course) seems to be telling us that we don’t understand cells’ metabolism as well as we thought we did. You may have learned in biology about the pathways cells use to turn things like glucose into energy – glycolysis (splitting glucose into smaller sugar molecules) and the mitochondria (‘burning’ the sugars with O2 to make CO2 and water). These pathways are partly controlled by the calcium signals we study. But – the metabolism also changes the signals. Which makes the whole thing a bit complicated.

Why is all this worth understanding? Well, apart from just understanding it, if you want to know how it goes wrong, and ultimately how to fix it, you have to know how it works. For instance, in a lot of cancer cells, the metabolism of the cell is a bit different from in a ‘normal’ cell. That changes the calcium signals, too. If we could work out exactly how the cancer cells are different, maybe we could work out ways to ‘push’ the cancer cells to behave MORE like the normal cells in their metabolism. That could make them easier to kill. Pancreatic cancer is a really horrible and deadly cancer, and pancreatitis is a nasty disease too. Ultimately everyone who works in this sort of biology would like to think that their work could help contribute to new treatments one day. But for now, we’ll just settle for understanding it all a bit better.  ‘Bit by bit’, as they say.

The main technology we use to do this stuff is high-magnification light microscopy, combined with loading special fluorescent probe ( we often call them ‘reporter’) molecules into the living cells to ‘read out’ what is going on. Basically, we want the cell to be able to tell us how much calcium is inside it. The way we do this is to trick the cell into filling itself with a special ‘reporter’ molecule that glows bright green when it sees calcium ions. So – cell starts signalling, calcium in the cell goes up, green stuff in the cell glows brighter, we measure it down the microscope. Simples.

(If everything’s working, which it. ermm, usually isn’t…! Research science can be frustrating because a lot of things can NOT work with your experiment. You have to not get discouraged easily. )

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Here’s my mate Jason (he’s another lecturer at the University – he was once one of my students, but survived!) with one of the microscopes doing an experiment. The output usually looks like a video – there is one over here which isn’t ours but shows the kind of thing – ‘hotter’ colours mean calcium went up in a cell). Eventually it all ends up in papers in scientific journals like this one.

 

 

My Typical Day

Fighting my way out from under piles of paper so I can do some proper science.

I’m afraid my typical day these days would be mostly spent in front of a computer reading or writing. The last time I did many experiments myself was a fair few years ago (!). These days I’d probably break something if I went in the lab and tried to do a full day’s experiments. Actually, I do still fix most of the equipment when it goes wrong, especially the microscopes. and I teach people how to use it, especially undergraduate students doing project work in the lab as part of their degree, but also people visiting the lab from other countries.

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Another microscope. Also in a dark room.

Because the work we do mostly involves measuring fluorescent light, the microscopes usually have to be in small dark rooms. This can be dangerous if you like a snooze in the afternoon…! I have an office with – gasp – windows (the last office I had didn’t), so not so much dozing potential.

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A picture of my office (dull, I’m afraid):

I’ve not been in this office for that long, so a lot of my stuff is still in boxes, though you wouldn’t know from the amount of mess ON the desk/shelves. I’d like to tell you I’m just pretending to live up to the stereotype of the totally disorganised scientist, but I really am pretty disorganised. Though I only actually lose something about once or twice a year.

Apart from responding to email, or reading scientific papers, or students’ work, or writing something, the other sort of stuff I do during the day might be go to research seminars, or go to talk through some of what we’re doing with my scientific collaborators, maybe including planning what experiments to do. Or I could be teaching, which might be a lecture – I usually lecture to pretty big groups, from 200-400 students at a time –  or a lab class, or a tutorial (small group, 5-12 people depending which degree they’re studying), or even meeting one student to talk about some piece of work they’ve done.

What I'd do with the money

Move to Tahiti… errr, buy a proper microphone and record some podcasts talking about science and explaining stuff. I’m too grumpy-looking for video!

Like a lot of people in science I used to get really cheesed off with SOME (not all) of the science stories in the newspapers and on TV. About five or six years ago I started posting on forums and websites that had to do with this, especially doctor and author Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science website.

(BTW, if you’re doing science AS or A levels you should read Ben’s book).

Once I started doing this stuff, it became clear that it was a really good way to connect with non-scientists about science. This is because a lot of the stories that appeared in the press and on TV were to do with stuff loads of people had an opinion about – whether people should take vitamin supplements, for instance, or whether you need to drink eight glasses of water a day, or whether taking exercise will help keep your brain more active as you get older, or whether babies should have all their vaccinations (my answers to those four would be ‘No, no, yes-ish and and yes’, in order, BTW).

Anyway, the point was that these were things lots and lots of people had thought about, so they were interested, and it was a good way to get a discussion going on how scientists tested stuff, and what the evidence actually told you about whatever-it-was. In comparison, the sorts of things scientists do in their labs can sound a bit…. well, weird and obscure. There’s a joke in science about how, as you work for more and more years as a scientist, you know ‘more and more about less and less’ – that is, you get to be a world expert about some really specialised thing that you’ve been working on for the last 20 years, but you can only have a conversation about it with the other 20 scientists in the world who work on nearly the same stuff.

Anyway, having started posting comments on forums and blogs, I got so into it that I started a blog of my own, and I now have two, one of which is here. And I’ve done quite a few talks and other things for schools, or for evening science groups, on this kind of stuff over the last few years.

So what’s all that got to do with what I’d spend the money on? Well, I always quite fancied doing a podcast, as sometimes talking is quicker than writing (certainly quicker than typing!). I did one session on someone else’s podcast, and it seemed like fun, so I think I’d like to set up my own, maybe get a couple of decent mics and some audio editing software and then take a shot at taking apart some crazy science stuff from the papers, or TV.  My mother always said I liked talking so much I should have been an actor or a lawyer. And I do really terrible accents and impressions. So maybe doing some podcasts would be putting the science together with a little bit of all that…

 

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

talkative (that’s the polite word!); helpful (I hope); full of useless facts

Who is your favourite singer or band?

A question guaranteed to show up us older types. It used to be The Clash. But no-one under 45 has heard of them.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Don’t know. Snorkelling on the Barrier Reef comes close, though.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Could I have the body (and face!) back that I had when I was 25? Please? Or ‘having more time’ is one thing – all parents of small kids say that. And I always wanted to live by the sea. When I was a teenager I would definitely have said ‘not having to wear glasses or contact lenses’. One other one is that I wish I’d been good enough at sport – any sport! – to have a really good reason to keep doing it as an adult. I used to run and cycle a bit, and go hiking at the w/end, but these days I’m a couch potato, I’m afraid

What did you want to be after you left school?

Pretty sure I never thought about it. I think I assumed I would end up working in television or radio, somehow (NOT front of camera – in production) or maybe as a journalist. Definitely didn’t expect to end up working in science.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

A few times, nothing major. At primary school mostly for being cheeky to the teachers. And I once got banned from school dinners for a while when the Head caught me with just a plate of mashed potato and a bowl of custard. When she asked me what I was doing I told her what I REALLY thought of the pie and the stewed rhubarb. At secondary school, mostly for refusing to ‘volunteer’ when things that were pretty much compulsory -like cross country running competitions – were made ‘officially’ voluntary.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Errr – whitewater rafting? Though I got marooned on a rock in mid-stream. I used to enjoy conferences, travelling, and meeting people a lot, and being part of international collaborative projects. I don’t travel that much since the kids were born (8 and nearly 4 now), so I do my international stuff by email now, mostly. But I’ve been to a lot of different countries, including Japan and Korea, and worked in America and Australia, so I’ve been able to go loads of places I don’t suppose I’d have been to if it wasn’t for working in science.

Tell us a joke.

A photon enters a hotel. Porter: ‘Need any help with your luggage?’ Photon: ‘No thanks, I’m travelling light’

Other stuff

Work photos:

First off, here’s a picture of where I work – the lab is in the new-ish building on the left. Unfortunately my office is in the not-quite-as- nice OLD building on the right.

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It’s a bit annoying having to run backwards and forwards between the two buildings, but one GOOD thing is that we can cross from one to another at 3rd floor level using the tube/bridge between the two (black in the picture). When you’re in the bridge it’s a bit like something from a movie set:

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Finally…. NOT a work photo AT ALL, but just in case you wonder what middle-aged scientists looked like when we were young, the answer is… young!  For instance:

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Yep, this is me aged 23 or 24, back when I was studying for my doctoral degree in the 1980s.

Why not try getting your parents to dig out the photos of them when they were young and see if you can recognise them…?