Looking forward the finale this afternoon. This is fun!!
EducationThorpe St Andrew School Norwich (1978-85); Bath University (1985-1989); University of London (1989-1992)
QualificationsB.Sc. (Hons) Biochemistry. Ph.D. Pharmacology. Fellow of Higher Education Academy (FHEA)
Work HistoryHoechst AG (Germany); Beecham Wulfing GmBH (Germany); Merck Sharp and Dohme (UK); Duke University (USA) 1992-1994; Mayo Clinic (USA) 1994-1998; University of Manchester 1998-date
Current JobSenior Lecturer in Pharmacology
University of Manchester
Favourite thing to do in my job: Watching one of my students finally “get” something they’ve been struggling with.
My Work: A teaching-focussed receptor pharmacologist.
I’m a receptor pharmacologist, interested in the structure and function of the sites where drugs work. I investigated the actions of toxins on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors for many years, using a technique called electrophysiology. That’s basically a way of measuring the tiny electrical charges that cells can pass back and forth across their membranes.
Receptors are proteins that receive messages that are being sent to a cell and then trigger the cell to respond somehow. The messages are usually small chemicals – neurotransmitters and hormones. The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is one of the best understood receptors. It causes muscle to contract when neurones release a chemical signal called acetylcholine onto the muscle. The receptor gets its name because nicotine is one of the chemicals that can activate it.
Many of the compounds I worked with came from plant and animal sources. I spent quite a lot of time working on a frog toxin called epibatidine from the phantasmal frog (top left). It’s deadly toxin, but also is a pain killer 200x stronger than morphine! Here’s a Manchester Museum web page on the frog that makes it. http://frogblogmanchester.com/about/poison-dart-frogs/phantasmal-dart-frog/
We also used snail toxins in our work quite a lot. Cone snails (top right) live in the sea and hunt fish. The big ones have enough venom to kill a human so if you are lucky enough to go to Australia or other tropical areas, be careful about picking up shells in the sea! Read about them here: they are really cool!
I’ve got some of the shells on my desk. The biggest is a geography cone: it’s about 15 cm long and about 8 cm across. Definitely big enough to kill me if it was alive!
Cytisine is a natural toxin you can find in the UK. It is from laburnum trees (bottom left). It turns out that this toxin might be useful in helping people quit smoking as it acts on the brain in a similar way to nicotine. Cytisine has unusual properties at muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and we used it to probe the structure of the receptor.
Cobras and other related snakes (bottom right) produce toxins that are really useful tools for working with nicotinic receptors because the toxins bind so tightly to the receptor. We used radioactive versions of the toxin to measure how much of the receptor we had in our samples, and what happened when we mutated the receptor.
In recent years I’ve spent most of my time developing e-learning material to help students understand the mechanisms behind drug action and I do a lot of teaching to students on biomedical, pharmacy and medical degrees here at the University of Manchester.
You can have a look at a few of my e-learning modules in the links below. Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand everything…. they are designed to go alongside lectures in which I explain a lot of this stuff.
The first one is about basic drug-receptor interactions: https://softchalkcloud.com/lesson/serve/VkxfKJEmUGn1tQ/html
It aims to inject a little humour into what can be a very dry subject: the students have to look at the relationship between the dose of a drug (ReRug) and hair growth
– as you can see, I don’t mind humiliating myself a little in the name of science!
In this one I got my daughter and her friend to pose for a comic-strip about drug side effects: https://softchalkcloud.com/lesson/serve/lzCJq7INdRWUsS/html
The final one introduces an exercise in which students have to develop drugs to treat diseases of the garden gnome: https://softchalkcloud.com/lesson/serve/haNOURExWYBcQX/html (and here is a link to one of the gnome disease descriptions: https://www.softchalkcloud.com/lesson/serve/POrNV5knTEK0Se/html)
In addition to my interests in Pharmacology, I have a second life as a “music physiologist”! I’m currently running a research project called “How hard can you blow?” It’s investigating whether people who play brass band instrument like tubas and trombones have better lung function than the general population. My students and I have been out to brass bands across Greater Manchester and Yorkshire to test volunteers and we’ve found that the brass players do, on average, have stronger lung muscles.
I got into this project because I play in a couple of bands myself. Tuba in a brass band, and sax in a neon street band…. The Northern Lights Street Orchestra
You can read more about what I get up to with NLSO on our twitter feed
All images: Creative Commons Licences, from Wikipedia
Phantasmal frog: H Crisp
Conus magus shell: R Parker
Laburnum: Andrew Dunn
My Typical Day: Up at the crack of dawn, a full day of practical teaching and lectures, with my evenings spent hanging around brass bands!
I decided some years ago to move to the country and so I have to make an early start to beat the rush hour into Manchester. During term time, I usually get up about 4.30, walk our two labradoodles and then am at my desk by 7. Then, I’ll be answering emails from students and colleagues and trying to get enough coffee down my neck so I can do my lectures and tutorials.
This is the lecture theatre I do most of my teaching in. It holds 600 normally, but the roof can be raised so that it seats 1000 people! Normally my first year lectures are to between 400 and 600 students.
In the second half of the year, I also teach a practical course based around the drug discovery process to second year B.Sc. Pharmacology students: that runs 11-5pm three days a week. Usually, I get home about 6.30pm but sometimes it’s much later because of visits to bands as part of the “How hard can you blow?” project.
What I'd do with the prize money: Chili-ed out: an open-day/schools activity based on the Scoville scale for hot peppers
I’ve always found that people remember experiments they do on themselves or their friends much better than stuff that happens in test tubes, so I’d like to develop a human volunteer activity to teach people about drugs, receptors and the use of biological tissues (people) to assay drugs.
The Scoville scale was developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The method consists of extracting dried chilis into alcohol and then diluting the extract into water. The dilution factor that yields a solution in which the spiciness can first be detected, is the Scoville rating. For example, a solution extracted from jalapeno peppers can be diluted up to about 1000 x and still be detected, so jalapenos have a Scoville rating of 1000.
I envision the activity running on University Open Days and perhaps being taken into local schools. Participants would begin by extracting and diluting some dried chilis and would then be able to “taste test” their dilutions to establish a Scoville value for the particular chili they’d been provided with. Interactive e-learning packages would be made available on laptops or iPads to enable people to find out more about capsaicin, the active ingredient of chili peppers, and the target this drug binds to in the body, which is a protein called the vanilloid receptor. The vanilloid receptor is one of the proteins responsible for detecting painful heat – that’s the reason that chili peppers taste hot.
Habanero pepper image by Ryan Bushby Creative Commons Licence.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, dedicated, friendly
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I read “The Chemistry of Life” by Steven Rose. Probably the best introduction to biochemistry ever written.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
According to my teachers, I had an “overdeveloped sense of injustice”, so yes, constantly.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
There’s an alternative?! Seriously? I’d probably train as an electrician – I think I have pretty good technical skills.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The Dave Matthews Band…. http://davematthewsband.com/ Just found out they are coming to Manchester in November
What's your favourite food?
Nachos with spicy chili and loads of cheese.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
A kayaking trip on Lake Superior. Despite it being August, the water was only 6 C, so I learned to stay upright dead quick.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Health, wealth, and to be better at music (that’s the thing that makes me happy).
Tell us a joke.
Why do cars have itchy roofs? Because they have headlights!