Congratulations Mike, and goodbye to the students and good luck with your future, wherever that may take you...
Gymnasium Walldorf, Germany (1994-1996), Saffron Walden County High School (1996-2001), Pembroke College, University of Cambridge (2001-2005), University of Sheffield (2005-2009).
In my undergraduate summers I worked as a tour guide in a castle and as an (unpaid) leader on canoeing camps for children, as well as in various labs for short stints. During my PhD, I was also a lab demonstrator, which means looking after undergraduates in their practical classes and marking their work. After my degree, I went down the traditional academic route: straight into my PhD and once complete I went into my first post-PhD job, which I am currently still in.
University of Oxford
Favourite thing to do in my job: The excitement of looking at the result of an experiment when you don’t really know what to expect from it.
I study proteins (cellular machinery) that are involved in the repair of DNA (the instructions for making cellular machinery), trying to work out how DNA is repaired, which could in future help design anti-cancer drugs.
As an enzymologist, I try to work out the mechanisms of how DNA is repaired. Enzymes are proteins and form the tiny machinery of the cell. DNA is the blueprint for making them. When DNA is damaged, it leads to mishapen proteins (machinery with broken levers and such-like) and this can cause cancer. Proteins are tiny and have tiny “cogs and levers” (amino acids) that allow them to fulfil their function. I try to work out the mechanism for how these tiny levers work and whether something could be done about “broken” proteins to prevent disease. As these are so small you have to work out indirect ways of measuring what the “cogs and levers” do. What I do is make large amounts of the protein/enzyme I am interested in and then I do tests with it in different conditions.
Making lots of protein in itself is quite interesting. In the olden days of biochemistry, protein was produced by mashing up an organ where it is present, for example a rat liver, and then getting it out of the resulting mixture. This was quite time-consuming, expensive and did not give lots of protein so these days we produce lots of proteins by reprogramming a bug to make it (called recombinant technology or genetic engineering) – because a bug divides really often this means lots of protein is made. So as part of my work, I spend a bit of time growing up bugs in special liquid that has all the nutrients they need to grow happily.
The next step is to separate the protein I want from all the other bug proteins that are mixed in with it. To do this you first mash up your bugs by pushing them through a very narrow hole or by grinding them by smashing them with tiny balls. And then you separate the liquid using several steps of something called chromatography – this is a bit like a sieve, as small proteins go through and large ones don’t, and several steps are used as you can change the type of “sieve” you use.
Finally, when I have my protein, I test it, which is the exciting bit. I basically give the protein bits of DNA of different kinds (substrates) in different conditions to see what the enzyme will do to the DNA bits. These DNA bits are also tiny so to see what happens to them, they are labelled with a little green dot at the end and the reaction mix is separated on a gel to see what happened to the DNA. (Gels are similar to chromatography as running a current through the gel makes DNA move through it, with smaller pieces running further than larger ones).
Of course there are other types of experiments that I do – sometimes I want to study a new protein so I need to prepare the bugs for making lots of it, which may involve making lots and lots of one bit of DNA. Or I am trying to work out new ways of measuring the activity of the protein which may be less time-consuming. Or I am doing some short-term bits of work for my colleagues. The main point to take away from this is that science work is actually quite varied.
My Typical Day
In a typical day, if there is such a thing, I would start by setting up experiments as soon as I get in the lab to get things going, continuing with labwork until early to mid-afternoon, leaving the rest of the day for data analysis and planning for the next day(s)’ work, as well as going to seminars, writing up results, preparing presentations and posters, writing and reading journal articles, and much else.
It’s good to start with labwork as with setting up experiments there are often time periods where you need to wait with tubes at body temperature, films being exposed, gels having to run, so there is always plenty of time to do things such as checking emails, writing up your lab-book and preparing talks later.
I would say that my work is made up by about 60% practical work and 40% (a significant chunk!) of time involving data analysis, experimental design, write-up and keeping up with the literature – it’s important not to skimp on these bits! The most crucial is the data analysis – there is no point in doing your practical work if you can’t say what the data means. And part of your duty as a scientist is to keep an accurate record of what you do, so I make sure that at the end of the day (or beginning of the next day if I run out of time) I write up my lab-book, which is a bit like a diary of all the experiments I’ve done.
When on the computer I check tables of contents of academic journals, which is where all science gets published, because it’s important to know what other groups have discovered. A crucial part of being a scientist is presenting your work to others, so I spend some time writing and giving presentations to colleagues both within my department and outside it at conferences. For presenting work at conferences, you need to submit an abstract, a short summary of your work, in advance so that also takes some time.
And of course then there are the little bits that you might forget but that are part of a researcher’s life. You order things for the lab, you wash up your glassware, you make up solutions, you check work-related blogs…and yes, you do occasionally check news sites and go for cups of tea with your colleagues to unwind!
Having said all this, I am currently having a temporary break from the lab as I am a new mum of a little 3.5 month old baby and on maternity leave. But hey, there are some parallels as I described here: http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/156431-539441/Transferable-skills-honed-as-a-Mum.html !
What I'd do with the prize money
DNA can be extracted from fruit and vegetables quite easily using everyday ingredients, and I would like to make up a set of kits to take into primary schools and do this experiments with whole classes of youngsters.
I have previously done this experiment as a demonstration with a wide range of students, from primary school age all the way through to sixth form. I think that it would be much more fun if the students could do the experiment themselves so having enough kits to go round a whole primary school class would be great. Given that the ingredients for the experiment should be relatively low cost, I would use the remaining money to try and attend schools within my local area and beyond.
Once purified, the DNA can be used as a starting point for a discussion around a wide range of topics including cancer (and other diseases), genetic engineering, the work of a scientist…
Although my target audience would initially be primary school students, I would be keen to expand into secondary schools, modifying the post-experiment discussion to include a brief overview of my career (so far) as a scientist and a Q&A session for the students who may be interested in following a similar career.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Outdoorsy, talkative, analytical
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Met a great bunch of people during the course of my work, many of whom have become lifelong friends.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Back in Germany, I had to stay behind after school once for sticking my tongue out at a cover teacher. But in my defense I was doing it when she wasn’t looking, she just turned around at an inconvenient time…
Who is your favourite singer or band?
No one in particular but I am a fan of country music.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Bringing up a little baby, something that I am still doing and will be doing for a long time.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Be healthy, be happy and enjoy what I’m doing, whatever it is.
Tell us a joke.
Shall I go for the really cheesy one that you’ll all groan at? “If you were an enzyme, which one would you be?” “A helicase, so that I can unzip your genes”…