Favourite Thing: Looking after my cells, feeding them, putting them to bed and then using them in experiments and killing them if they don’t behave! To me it’s amazing that we can grow complete cells in an artificial environment that have everything they need to survive.
GCSEs and A-Levels (Biology, Chemistry, Maths): St John’s College Cardiff, 1999-2006, Undergraduate degree: University of Oxford (Biochemistry) 2006-2010, PhD: University of Bath (Pharmacy and Pharmacology) 2013-present
Master of Biochemistry (MBiochem), Oxford
Research Assistant, Universitty of Oxford, Department of Cardivascular Medicine, 2010-2013
University of Bath
Me and my work
I’m trying to detect what molecules change and understand exactly what happens when skin is hit by UV light – the dangerous part of sunlight
There is a molecule called ‘haem’ that you might know as the thing that carries oxygen around your body in your blood. In red blood cells it’s attached to the protein called ‘haemoglobin’. However, it is also found in many other proteins all over the body. When it is attached to proteins it’s fine but when it starts floating around by itself it can cause a lot of damage to our cells.
Small amounts come unstuck from proteins all the time but luckily we have an enzyme called ‘heme-oxygenase’ that breaks down free haem so it can’t do any more damage. However, when we have problems with this enzyme and it stops working properly, like in Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or cancer then our organs can become damaged by the free haem.
When our skin is hit by ultraviolet light (UV) we think that it damages our proteins and causes their haem to be released in much greater amounts than normally happens. We think that the haem oxygenase enzyme that breaks haem down cannot do it fast enough to stop all the damage.
I’m looking develop a way to measure how much haem is released. I’m trying to make a ‘molecular probe’ that will bind to haem in a cell and change colour. Then I can measure how much the colour changes under a microscope and work out how much haem there is. This will also help me find out exactly how haem oxygenase works and how it’s regulated. Then we can start to further explore it’s role in different diseases.
My Typical Day
The majority of my day is usually spent doing either biology or chemistry experiments (it’s nice to have some variety!), attending meetings, reading about experiments that other people have done and what they have discovered and writing reports about my own experiments.
What I'd do with the money
Help students visit universities and other science centres
I would like to use it to set up a program at my university where schoolchildren (probably aimed at GCSE-A-levels) can come and visit the university, get tours around the different science departments, including the laboratories from current students, who can explain what they are working on. Then I would like to get them all together and stage and an interactive session kind of like what goes on here, where children can ask scientists any questions they want.
I think it’s really important that people are allowed and encouraged to ask as many questions as they want so that they can make informed decisions about what they do in their lives, for example whether they decide to get vaccinations or recycle their waste. Hopefully as well as giving school students a chance to see what it’s really like at a university, giving them the opportunity to ask more questions on that day will encourage them to keep asking questions about everything during the rest of their lives.
Hopefully, once I’ve used the money to set the program up the university will keep supporting it and turn it into a permanent scheme.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Cheerful, enthusiastic, questioning
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Going on horse trekking holiday through Cornwall and riding along the beach
What did you want to be after you left school?
A forensic scientist
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Sometimes a little, I was never very good at remembering my homework!
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Making some molecules that no one else in the world has ever made before
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My chemistry teacher did a PhD before he was a teacher and he found a way to make asthma inhalers work better so I wanted to discover something useful and important too. I also watched a lot of CSI!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To have my own horse, to live in a castle, to always be happy
Tell us a joke.
Why are there no aspirin in the jungle? Because the parots eat ’em all!
This is the laboratory where I do my cell work. On the right you can see the cell culture hoods, these are special cabinets that suck the air around in a special way to make sure no bacteria or fungus end up in the cells that you are trying to grow which would mess up your experiments. On the wall at the back is a whiteboard that I use to teach undergraduate students. On the left you can see my very old microscope!
And here are what my skin cells look like under the microscope, very zoomed in. Each little circle is a complete cell and contains all the biological material it needs to survive. In some of them you may be able to see another smaller, darker circle inside, this is the nucleus where all the DNA is.
When I am done with my experiments my cells live in this incubator. We grow them in plastic flasks where they stick to the bottom, and we put some liquid on top of them that contains all the nutrients they need to grow. They are kept warm at 37°C, the perfect temperature for their growth which is the same as our body temperature (although in the picture it says 36.9). I’m sorry the picture is on its side!
To test what happens when the cells are hit by UV light I put the cells in little dishes and put them under a machine that makes UV light. It’s a bit like a sunbed that some people use for tanning – although that isn’t very safe so when I’m using it I make sure to wear a big white coat and a special visor that stops the UV light hitting my face. It looks purple because UV light comes after the purple section of visible light in the electromagnetic spectrum.
When I’m not doing cell work I’ll be in the chemistry lab instead, setting up reactions to make new molecules to test in my cells. It’s a lot more messy than the biology lab as no one cares about keeping cells safe. Here the fume hoods have a more important role in keeping people working in the lab safe from the dangerous chemicals that need to be used inside.