There are no stupid questions! Curiosity and the quest for knowledge must start somewhere.
Newcastle Adventist High School, Australia; B.Sc. (Hons) University of Newcastle, Australia; PhD University of Queensland, Brisbane Australia
Bachelor of Science (Honours), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).
Undergraduate Research Intern, Virology Laboratory, University of Newcastle Australia;
Research Assistant, University of Sydney, Australia;
PhD Student, Sir Albert Sakzewski Virus Research Center, Royal Children’s Hospital, and University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia;
Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Oregon, Eugene, USA;
Marie Curie International Incoming Fellow, John Innes Centre, Norwich UK;
Postdoctoral Research Associate University of Cambridge;
Principle Scientist, Inspiralis Ltd, Norwich Research Park
Postdoctoral Research Associate
University of York, Department of Chemistry.
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love figuring out how biological machines work and then manipulating them to have different functions. This usually starts with a thought like “I wonder if….”. For example: “I wonder if it is possible to assemble a nano protein machine on a sensor chip surface and watch it work in real time.”
About Me: Total science geek getting to do what I love best: figure out how things work.
I live with my partner close to the University of York where I work in a structural biology research lab. Spring is my favourite season, when the snow drops and daffodils begin to flower after being cold over winter ( a process called vernalisation). In my spare time, I enjoy reading (sci fi, fantasy, biographies and modern fiction) watching silly TV shows and movies, playing xbox games (like Diablo3, Fallout etc) eating food from different countries, as well as walking and cycling in the outdoors. I also enjoy travelling to other countries to meet new people and explore new landscapes, cultures, histories and food. Another major interest of mine is using art and design to display information (such as scientific data; http://tabletopwhale.com/2016/04/11/virus-trading-cards.html) in beautiful and easy-to-understand images, like the poster of virus structures.https://cdn.rcsb.org/pdb101/learn/resources/200-viruses/200-viruses-poster-ids.pdf
My Work: Molecular Biologist: engineering new versions of virus proteins that have practical uses. For instance, the nanosensors that are used to define the sequence of genes from many organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.
I work with molecules that are too small to see. They are measured in nanometers (10^-9 m), a size scale you could call the nanoverse. To give you an idea of how small this is, a single sheet of ordinary paper is 100, 000 nanometers thick and the molecules I work with are 10,000 times smaller than that. I farm bacteria, a special lab strain that is not dangerous, to make these proteins for me and I use genetic engineering as a recipe to tell the bacteria what the protein should look like. One protein looks like a donut with a hole in the middle and we are have used this molecule as a nanopore sensor to “see” what other biological molecules (DNA and protein) look like. We use an electron microscope to take pictures of these molecules (I’ve attached some below)
and then put them into tiny holes (nanopores) in very thin metal sheets (1 nm thick, also see below)
to make a ‘hybrid’ nanopore. Using a special machine with electrodes on either side of this thin sheet, we can measure the tiny tiny changes in electrical current that happen as DNA moves through the nanopore. The combination of these tiny changes gives us an identifying feature (a bit like your finger print) for a particular DNA. We hope that we can use this new technology to track the changes in DNA and proteins that happen as cancer cells develop or when a virus infects a cell. If we understand it, we can control it. If we can control it, we can cure it.
My Typical Day: involves a lot of computer work, designing experiments and analysing data as well as growing bacteria and purifying protein.
Normally, my day usually begins before I even leave home with the boring things like reading and answering emails and checking my schedule for meetings. To make this more enjoyable I do it on my couch with my laptop and a cup of coffee.
When I arrive at work around 9.30 am, I check the plan I made the day before for all the lab based things I need to do. Growing bacteria and making protein takes several days and I need to be organised to do everything in the right order and at the right time. Some steps like growing bacteria or clearing a protein solution by spinning it at really high speeds (like a washing machine on spin cycle), or purifying in on a special machine that removes all the extra proteins
can take 1-4 hours, so it is important to get these steps going asap otherwise I will still be in the lab at 10 pm at night (not fun).Once these steps are going I can take 20 minutes for morning tea (Strong Black coffee for me) and discuss experiment problems, data analysis and what to do next with my fellow scientists.
Back to the lab to set up more experiments (tests to see if my protein works the way it should) before going to a talk from another scientist about their work. This is important because it keeps me thinking about new ways to do things and gives me good ideas to use in my experiments. Sometimes these talks are over lunchtime so I only have a few minutes to gobble my lunch before going into the lecture room. Other times my experiments are going on without me and I can take a longer lunch and chat with my co-workers.
Back to the lab, check that my bacteria are growing happily (we measure the number of cells by seeing how much light can pass through the culture liquid in a spectrophotometer – less light = lots of cells = happy culture). If so its time to tell them to start making protein (I do this by adding a special chemical to the media) and then leave them to it until the next day.
Time to start writing up the reports from the days work, back to the lab to check how pure my portal nanopore protein is. I do this by separating them through a jelly like material (gel) using an electric field in a special buffer that makes them all charged. Little proteins move fast and reach the bottom, big proteins move slow and stay higher up and I can see where they are by staining them with dye.
More report writing and planning for the next days work. I need to make sure everything is ready for the next steps of the experiments. Time to go home, hopefully its only around 6pm, more likely it is 7 or 8.
In the Coronaverse, I am working from home because all the labs that aren’t directly working towards tests, cures or vaccines for the coronavirus SARS-CoV2 (that causes COVID-19) have been closed down. So my day begins as usual with emails and then continues with videoconference meetings and lectures. The rest of my day is filled with reading academic papers to stay up to date with the latest advancements, followed by analysing data so that we can understand what proteins look like (like the one below)
and writing papers to tell other people about the work we have been doing.
What I'd do with the prize money: Start a project with a film/tv/game artist to create an interactive virtual reality environment to display the molecules I work with.
Virtual Reality (VR), like the oculus rift or the headset you can get for the PS4, is the new best thing in visual data display. Just think of how amazing it is to be immersed in a virtual world when you’re playing video games. Now imagine being able to see inside a virus and move around in it! I want to work with game and VR designers (like the ones at the University of York Department of Film and TV) to make interactive “movies” for the oculus rift that will let us see inside the molecular machines I work with. We can use the pictures from electron microscopes and Xray synchrotrons to create a virtual walk through a portal protein nanopore. We might even be able to make an interactive version that lets us pull DNA through it like we are inside a DNA sensing nanopore! Eventually, I’d like to get this set up with lots of different “movie” options that people can download and run on their own VR headsets. I also would like to have a portable setup that I or other scientists can take into schools and to public science festivals for everyone to use.
Obviously this is a big project that will take a few years and probably lots of money. I would use the prize money to start this project with VR designers and then together apply for more money (to buy equipment and pay the artists) from a charity like the Wellcome Trust to finish it off. Molecular VR coming to a science festival near you!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, excitable, loyal
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My Dad – when I was little he used to put pond water under a microscope for me to see the little waterbugs moving about in it.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Science or biology, PE and sports
What did you want to be after you left school?
I wanted to be a medical doctor working with children but I didn’t get in to any of the university courses I applied for. I did science while waiting to get in to medicine, then I discovered I really liked science.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, mostly for talking too much. Sometimes for daydreaming, often for forgetting to bring the right books to class.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I am not sure, maybe a science teacher, a doctor, or an science writer/vlogger.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Nick Cave, Garbage, The avalanches, Baker Boy, MC Hawking, Armin Van Buuren, MGF
What's your favourite food?
Beef Stroganoff, Tofu Laksa, Duhl Sot Bibimbap (A korean rice dish in a hot stone bowl).
What is the most fun thing you've done?
This is a tough one: Backpacking in the cascade mountain ranges (USA), Snowshoeing up Tumolo Moutain near Bend, Oregon (USA), Seeing the northern lights, tracking a molecular machine working in real time.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To be better at maths. To be independently wealthy so I could do work on the scientific questions I find interesting. To be artistic, able to draw and paint.
Tell us a joke.
Why can’t you trust atoms? They make up everything.