"For just a few minutes you could be the only person in the world that knows something, and it can be really exciting to think about the experiments that can lead on from this result or the impact it might have in the longer term."
- Current job title: Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow
- Current location: University of St Andrews
- Field of research: Carbohydrate enzymology
- Education history: BSc (Hons), University of Warwick (2002); PhD, University of York (2006)
- Wellcome Trust awards: Research Career Development Fellowship); Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship (2008–2011)
- Other awards: Biochemical Society Early Career Research Award 2012
Tell us about your background
I did a biochemistry degree at the University of Warwick, during which I spent an intercalated year working at AstraZeneca. I really enjoyed my time in industry but realised that to progress you really need a PhD, so after graduation I went to do one at the University of York. Once I'd completed it I stayed on for a couple of years to do a short postdoctorate. I was then awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship and worked at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. In 2012, I was awarded a Research Career Development Fellowship and started an independent research group at the University of St Andrews.
Why did you choose your career?
I always enjoyed science at school, but don't think I ever dreamed of being a scientist. I just stayed with it really because there is always something more to learn and explore. I do like the freedom that academia allows – if you get a strange or interesting result, you can follow it up and see where it leads.
How would you describe your job?
Up until last year I was mostly doing bench work but was also involved with writing papers and teaching students. This has changed since starting my own research group, and now more time is spent supervising students in the lab, undergraduate teaching and obtaining funds to expand the group.
In lay terms, what 's your science about?
Generally I'm interested in carbohydrate processing enzymes – those that are involved with putting together or taking apart carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are involved in so many processes – from fertilisation to defining our blood group – and so it is important to understand the enzymes that control them so we know what to do if they go wrong.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently we're investigating the enzymes that break down the long chains of carbohydrates surrounding our cells. These carbohydrates act like a glue to hold the cells together, but they also have several other roles, which are only just emerging. We're trying to obtain these enzymes in large enough quantities to study their structure and function at the molecular level.
What is the ultimate aim of your work?
Although we're a long way off at the present time, we're hoping that by gaining an understanding of how these enzymes work it will help us design and develop inhibitors. These enzymes are implicated in cancer and in genetically inherited lysosomal storage diseases, so any progress we make may impact on therapeutics and hopefully benefit patients in the longer term.
What are difficulties and challenges of being a scientist, and how do you overcome them?
I guess one of the main problems is the way that academia is funded. You always need to stay competitive and have to think where the next papers are coming from. Sometimes you can't enjoy bench work at the level of discovery, as you need to be thinking about its impact and how this could influence future funding.
How has the Wellcome Trust award influenced your career decisions?
I was in the first group of people to get a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship – it's a unique opportunity to have your own money and research what you want. The Fellowship allowed me to travel and gave me opportunities I wouldn't have had any other way. I was also fortunate to be awarded a Research Career Development Fellowship after this, [which] has helped me get an independent group up and running without the financial burdens that many at my level experience. I've been able to marry together some of the structural biology techniques I learned during my PhD with aspects of the cellular techniques I learned in Canada.
What is the best part about doing science?
Just the hope that you're going to get the one result that makes you smile. For just a few minutes you could be the only person in the world that knows something, and it can be really exciting to think about the experiments that can lead on from this result or the impact it might have in the longer term.
Who is your biggest role model?
Someone I worked in the lab with in York while I was doing my PhD, called Eleanor Dodson. She is in her 70s now and is an inspirational lady who does crystallography. She started off working in Oxford with Dorothy Hodgkin and was involved in working out the structure of insulin. She has incredible determination and can often solve the crystal structures of molecules that no one else can – by changing little details here and there, she comes up with an answer when others would have given up.
Who is your favourite living scientist?
Frederick Sanger. He has, of course, won two Nobel Prizes, and he's the father – or perhaps grandfather – of molecular biology. He's influenced so much of the science I do today in the lab. The DNA and protein sequencing that we take for granted now has all come from his insights and the methods he developed.
Who is your favourite scientist in pop culture?
Stephen Hawking. Despite his medical problems, he's just kept going, promoting science and making it accessible to the public - something all scientists need to do.
What music do you listen at work?
We don't often have music on in the lab. Personally, I can listen to most stuff – perhaps not heavy metal, though!
What are your hobbies?
I like hiking, reading and spending time with my friends and family. I'm currently reading 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'. I like science-based books, but I've also been reading some Philippa Gregory recently, which is a bit more historical – I like a real mix, really.
If you weren't a scientist, you would be…
I would probably have gone into something more mathematical, perhaps accountancy or statistics, something like that. I would still have done something academic, I think.