I have got my web browser working and going to catch up with all your ASK questions!
Science Teacher at a Secondary school 2009-2010; Medical Laboratory Assistant at a Hospital 2010; Postdoctoral Research Scientist 2014- present
Postdoctoral research fellow in reproduction and embryo development
Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine at the University of Leeds
Favourite thing to do in my job: Probably talking science with friends and thinking up new, mad ideas for experiments!
I'm 32 years old but my wife thinks I'm closer mentally to our 3-year old old son. I love science, and when I'm not doing it I'm usually watching Netflix, playing videogames, reading or eating.
My name is Paul and my family are all Irish but I was born and grew up in (Greater) London. I live in Leeds now with my wife, who I met at University, and son, who is nearly 3. He’s a cheeky train-obsessed toddler and there’s lots of time spent at the park, playing with trains, Duplo and cars, and running about like a chimp. When we get the chance, my wife and I watch stuff like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and the Great British Bake Off. We also occasionally get out to the cinema, usually to see the next Marvel film, and I think Infinity War might be my favourite movie ever. I don’t get as much time to play on the Xbox as I used to, but I occasionally get stuck into Dark Souls 3 or play Overcooked! or Gears of War with my wife. I play the Nintendo Switch on the train and having been playing Super Smash Bros as Link for 20 years! I’m also excited to see my son getting into Mario, just like I just to play with my Grandad and Uncle.
When I was faced with choosing A Level subjects as I got to the end of year 11, I realised that I had to pick Biology and Chemistry over English and History, though I enjoyed them just as much. I also did Classical Civilisations, which is brilliant if your school offers it, AS Maths (which I confess I never enjoyed at school but appreciate it a lot more now), and AS Critical Thinking, which is also cool if you get the chance to take it.
I knew pretty early on that I wanted to go to the University of York – I’d been to York on a primary school trip and thought it was awesome. I initially wanted to do Forensic Science, but York didn’t offer it so I decided to do Biochemistry instead and keep my options a bit more open. I met my wife on our first day, so definitely a good shout!
I really enjoyed studying Biochemistry and thought it would be fun to teach it to school students, so I stayed at York to do teacher training. This was great fun, if very hard work, and I followed it up by working as a teacher for a bit. This was even harder work – much respect to any teachers reading this! It’s also brilliant, but I really missed being in the lab so I left and worked in a hospital lab for a few months.
I then started a PhD at the Hull York Medical School. I’d never considered working on egg cells and embryos before, thinking developmental biology was somehow a bit superficial and dull. However the project was very biochemistry focussed – enzymes and chemical reactions releasing enough energy to build a person (or actually a cow in this case), which I thought was pretty cool. Studying this was brilliant and I ended up meeting lots of great scientists and finding out loads of new stuff. I followed this by moving to Leeds, where I still get to work with egg cell and embryos.
When I’m not doing science, I’m usually spending time with my wife and son.
You are what your parents ate! I’m interested in how egg cells and embryos grow from one unique little cell into a whole perosn or organism. We inherit a lot more from mum and dad than just DNA - what they eat and do affects us in the womb and all the way into adulthood!
During my PhD I worked mainly on preimplantation embryos, which are little balls of cells, starting from one fertilised oocyte and going up to around 200 in a cow blastocyst on day 7. Human embryos develop a bit faster, but cow is a pretty good comparison (or ‘model’) so the new data are usually useful for understanding human embryos too. I also got to work with stem cells, which was pretty awesome. Although I worked in the lab and just with those early embryos, I found out lots of new data that was relevant to the whole body. I did a lot of work on fat metabolism, and contributed to a growing idea in science that the fat stores inside an egg cell is hugely important to correct egg and embryo development, and can even impact adult life.
I followed my PhD by moving to Leeds, where I’ve been working with sheep egg cells. Egg cells are mostly stored in the ovary as very tiny groups of cells called primordial follicles. We extract these follicles from sheep tissue collected from an abattoir – the sheep are destined to be lamb burgers and mince in ASDA, and the reproductive tissue is perfectly safe, but not eaten. I quite like the fact that we are able to use this tissue that would otherwise be wasted, though I wouldn’t recommend visiting the abattoir to everybody! We then use the follicles and egg cells for experiments looking into metabolism and genetics during the life cycle from the ‘primordial’ egg to the fully grown egg that is eventually released from the ovary with the potential to form a new life. It’s fascinating stuff!
I then got the chance to work with a team of engineers. Rather than planes or engines or anything else large-scale, my colleagues are designing and making tiny devices to grow embryos in. I get to test out how well mouse and cow embryos grow in them and do lots of experiments to compare the embryos from the new devices and traditional culture methods. The overall aim is to improve embryo culture for animals and humans.
My Typical Day
A mixture of looking at embryos, doing experiments, discussing data and ideas with colleagues, and coffee.
I usually head straight to the lab to check on my egg cells and early embryos, which I grow for about 7 days in little petri dishes. I use microscopes to look at them but have to be quick as they are very sensitive and don’t like being out of the incubator! I’ll then carry out an experiment, usually using microscopes and other bits of equipment to find out how much of specific nutrients the eggs/embryos are using. I might also label the embryos with different coloured dyes to work out how many cells there are, whether they are alive or not, and how active they are in terms of metabolism. I’ll then spend a bit of time checking emails, reading to see what other scientists have been up to and writing up experiments to publish myself. I’ll also usually find time for a coffee with some of my colleagues and if I’m lucky, some cake!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Enthusiastic, easy-going and hungry
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I just one a prize for talking about my research at a conference and the prize is to go to another conference in Australia!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
A combination of great teachers and watching too much TV!
What was your favourite subject at school?
English or History - I only really focused on science at A level when I had to choose!
What did you want to be after you left school?
A forensic scientist. My whole class were obsessed with the CSI series.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Not really, I tried to keep my head down.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Frank Turner, Wombats, Foo Fighters, Snow Patrol, Red Hot Chili Peppers, anything Rock-based really.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
My 30th birthday present from my wife was 30 minutes flying a helicopter. That was pretty good!
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a church made out of amino acids? The cysteine chapel!