Very proud to have won! Thanks for the votes! Commiserations to Jenny. Well played by all.
Heathfield Primary School and Prestwick Academy; University of Glasgow 2003-2008; Institute of Cancer Research (London) 2008-2012.
Higher Chemistry, Maths, Physics, Computer Science and English; MSci in Chemistry with Medicinal Chemistry; PhD in Medicinal Chemistry.
Pfizer, University of Glasgow, University of Southampton.
Post-Doctoral Research Assistant
University of Southampton
Favourite thing to do in my job: Coming up with new ideas and thinking about how to test them experimentally.
I am a chemical biologist that studies ways to develop new drugs for bad bugs.
Bacteria are rapidly becoming resistant to the drugs we have available and we need to come up with ways of making new drugs, fast.
The importance of antibiotic resistance is highlighted by it’s inclusion in the Longitude Prize (http://www.longitudeprize.org/challenge/antibiotics)
To do try and identify new ways to target bacteria I grow cells that make proteins from superbugs and biological weapons, then I find ways to crystallise them. These crystals are very small – generally so small you can’t see them with your own eye and you need to use a microscope. Here are some crystals of a protein called Uridine Monophosphate Kinase – or UMPK for short:
Using these crystals and the very sophisticated equipment at Diamond Light Source, I fire intense beams of light, known as X-rays, at them and measure the scattering of the beams. This scattering just looks like an arrangement of spots (see below) but thanks to some amazing scientists (William and Lawrence Bragg, Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin, amongst others) some very complex mathematical equations and very powerful computer programmes we can use these patterns to work out the shape and features of the proteins.
Knowing the shape and features of a protein can provide a massive amount of information on how the protein works, how bacteria develop resistance to current drugs, and it can help us develop new drugs for tackling superbugs and biological weapons.
It’s very important to discuss and share interesting results with the scientific community and so sometimes I get to travel to places like San Diego in California and tell people what I have been doing!
My Typical Day
It’s a cliche but no two days are the same.
Some days I will be doing some synthetic chemistry in a fume hood, making small molecules that we hope could lead to a new drug.
Other days I will be growing bacteria and then I’ll burst them open to get the protein from inside to try and crystallise. On the most exciting days (or nights) I will head off to Diamond Light Source to fire X-rays at my crystals to try and solve the structure of the protein that the crystals are made off. Diamond is pretty big circle (around 560 m in circumference) and looks pretty industrial on the inside despite it’s shiny exterior!
The days immediately following trips to Diamond are usually spent at my desk, processing data and trying to solve the structure of my protein. Using this information, I can design better small molecules which might be better drugs. Here is a picture of my desk. On the screens are some protein structures I’m currently working on.
Here is the end product from all of this work. This is a cartoon of the structure of a protein called MPS1, which is involved in cancer. I solved this structure as part of my PhD at The Institute of Cancer Research and we are able to use this structure to design potent and selective inhibitors of this protein which could lead to new drugs for treating cancer.
Apart from my lab work, I also help supervise young students in the lab and do a little bit of teaching here and there.
What I'd do with the prize money
I would buy a 3D printer to make models of protein structures to help explain to students how this information can help us design new drugs.
We have very powerful software to analyse and make cartoons of protein structures that we have solved using X-ray crystallography. However, sometimes it is easier to understand and appreciate something when you can hold it and turn it and see it from different angles. I would like to buy a 3D printer to make models of proteins to help people understand how their shape and interactions affect their biological roles. I could then use these models to explain how use these structures to design new drugs.
An example of a 3D-printed model of MPS1 is shown below (model produced by my former colleagues Dr Nathan Brown and Dr Sarah Langdon at The Institute of Cancer Research, London).
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Introverted, logical, indecisive.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I’ve taken a genetic code – a series of letters on a bit of paper – and turned that into a real protein, which I used to make crystals. Using these crystals I was able to see the structure of this protein – which no one had ever seen before.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
When I was young I was a big fan of Wallace and Gromit, which made me want to be an inventor. Science and invention share a lot of common concepts and ideas and the idea of being an inventor slowly evolved into being a scientist.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I could be slightly mischievous but was generally well-behaved and hard working – not much has changed to be honest.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I would like to work in a record shop, or something else involved in music.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Hard question! I’m a big fan of Biffy Clyro, Frightened Rabbit and Frank Turner.
What's your favourite food?
I love mexican food.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I was once in a Frank Turner music video which was awesome fun.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
My own research lab/group, a Gibson ES-335 guitar and my own music festival.
Tell us a joke.
What’s a pirate’s favourite amino acid? ARRRRRRGININE.