Trying to catch up on some questions in the 'Ask' zone: have fallen woefully behind....
Before university at Equity and Law Life Assurance in Coventry. After university at the College of Life Sciences then Ninewells Hospital both at Dundee University.
University of St Andrews
Favourite thing to do in my job: Experiments (especially microscopy). I love the moment when the penny drops: when I get a new result that suddenly makes some weird old results make sense.
I'm a cell biologist working on degenerative diseases at the University of St Andrews
I’m from Nuneaton in Warwickshire but have lived in Scotland for almost all of my adult life. I have one Scottish son, one mighty fine cat and a fish so old we think it may be immortal…
I work on how the cells of our body use the information stored in our genes: in particular the amazingly dynamic molecular ‘machines’ that edit the messages written in the genes so they can be understood by the rest of the cell.
All of the genes in our cells and the information they contain are stored as DNA in the nucleus of the cell (like the yolk of a fried egg). Most genes carry the instructions to make proteins, which are made outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm (like the white of the egg). So that the DNA can be kept safely within the nucleus and the proteins can be made in the cytoplasm, the cell uses a messenger called messenger RNA. Messenger RNA is very like DNA but it can get out of the nucleus through tiny holes: the DNA has to stay put.
RNA is first made as an exact copy of DNA but there’s lots of extra stuff in this copy that is not needed to make the final protein. This has to be taken out before the RNA can get out of the nucleus. This is called ‘splicing’. It’s a bit like having one long video of a family wedding and editing it to go straight from the church to the reception without having a ten minute shot of the inside of the car on the way between the two.
Splicing happens really quickly and the cell has to get it right every time. It uses a complex machine called the ‘spliceosome’ to this . The spliceosome is made up of hundreds of proteins. Once the messenger RNA has been spliced, it needs to get out of the nucleus and taken to the right part of the cell for it to be used. This can be a long way from the nucleus in cells like motor neurons, which can carry messages all the way from your brain to the tips of your toes. I work on how and where the cell splices and transports messenger RNA.
I know it all sounds a bit abstract but it really is vital that the cell gets all of this right and there are several diseases that happen if it doesn’t. I also work on an inherited type of motor neuron disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). SMA happens if cells have too little of a protein that has lots of different jobs in the cell including making important parts of the spliceosome and moving RNA around in the cell. Another inherited disease I work on is called Myotonic Dystrophy Type I (DMI). This has lots of different symptoms and is caused by faulty messenger RNA that forms big clumps in the nucleus of the cell. With both of these, we really don’t understand yet how the genetic problems cause the symptoms.
My Typical Day
Good day: in the lab doing experiments. Bad day: stuck in my office doing paperwork.
I usually start by checking my email to see if there’s anything urgent I need to do. Then I go to the tissue culture room to check on my cells. I grow them in plastic flasks and feed them with red liquid that has sugar and proteins and salt and stuff in it. They are my boss. If they need attention they can’t wait or they will die and ruin all my experiments. On a good day, I get to do experiments in the lab or fire lasers at cells down a microscope. If my experiments have been going well, I might spend the day working on a paper explaining my experiments. On an OK day I might spend some time writing a grant to ask for money to do more experiments. On a bad day I get stuck with dull paperwork.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
I asked at home and they came up with ‘big fat nuisance’. Bit harsh, I think. I like to think I’m tenacious and imaginative. I have to confess to messy.
What's the best thing you've ever done in your career?
I’m hoping the best stuff is yet to come! I did once get a picture I’d taken down the microscope chosen for a text book. That was good for my ego, but a long time ago now.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
It's usually a teacher isn't it? Dr Smart, King Edward VI College, Nuneaton.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology, of course!
What did you want to be after you left school?
A scientist. When I was little I wanted to be an opera singer, but I can’t sing a note. Contempleted being a medical doctor later, but not for long.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not that often. The odd detention here and there but not for anything serious.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Huge fan of Bowie. Sadly missed. Also love Arctic Monkeys.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
What EVER? I’ll have to have a think about that one…
Tell us a joke.
Are you sure? Q: How many ears does Captain Kirk have? A: Three- a left ear, a right ear and a final front-ear.