Back in the lab. Some great questions today!
Favourite Thing: Two things: Knowing something for the first time is a real buzz. That and getting paid to build laser experiments from scratch.
Bridgnorth Endowed School in Shropshire, Bristol Uni.
A levels in Physics, Maths, and Chemistry. A degree in Chemical Physics. A PhD in Chemistry.
Cambridge, San Francisco (Stanford), London, and Oxford.
I’m an ‘Associate Professor of Physical Chemistry’, but I answer to ‘Mark’.
Me and my work
I shoot lasers down microscopes to see individual biological molecules moving about so I can figure out how they work.
My lab is interested in understanding the proteins that live in the membrane that surrounds each cell in your body. These proteins are important as they control what goes into and out of your cells. This communication is not surprisingly pretty important for the cell, and intact most medicines work by altering they way these proteins work.
My lab uses a type of laser microscopy that is able to see individual protein molecules by attaching a ‘tag’ to these proteins that emits light. This produces images that look just like stars in the night’s sky, just my stars wiggle around in the membrane.
You can see single molecule in cells, but cells are really complicated and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on a lot of the time. My lab’s solution is to put together cell membranes from scratch, building a artificial copy of the structure of the real cell but from purified components. That way, it’s easy for us to just change one thing and see exactly what happens. By simplifying things in this way we can begin to pull apart what’s going on and figure out how your cell membrane works.
My Typical Day
I give a lecture, meet some of the guys in my lab to discuss what’s going on, and end up helping fix the experiments.
Running a research group involves reading lots about what other scientists are doing, to try and figure out what’s possible and interesting to others. I’m also writing to the government to ask for money to carry on what we’re doing.
I also teach chemistry at my university, so that involves giving lectures and teaching small groups of students.
I have around 12 people that work with me to get the science done. I spend a lot of my time meeting with them, trying to figure out what to do next, working out what’s gone wrong and generally encouraging them! Sometimes the apparatus in the lab needs to be fixed, or new experiments built and I really enjoy playing with the lasers, and mechanical components and microscopes to get them working again. For example, one of our latest toys is a 3D printer, and we’ve been playing about trying to print optical components to make our experiments work using it.
What I'd do with the money
Would help me (and guys from my lab) to travel to schools to talk to them in person about what it’s like to be a scientist.
There’s lots I could do with the money. I’ve made video podcasts of what goes on in the lab before, I’ve gone out to schools to tell them about what we do, I’ve also paid for students to spend some time in the lab to see how things really get done.
At the moment my plan would be to spend the money sending me and my lab out to visit schools in the area that I grew up in.
But I bet you have some good ideas on how I might spend it. I’ll update the aims above if I get some good suggestions!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Right now? Listening to the Lumineers quite a bit.
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Other than science? … spent time in a lot of different countries… doing science.
What did you want to be after you left school?
No clue, just carried on doing stuff I enjoyed.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
I asked too many questions.
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Won an award that flew me to Hawaii
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Some cool teachers, and a OCD desire to understand everything
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Science is more than just a job, it’s a way of thinking about the world. I’d still be a scientist, just one doing something else. Probably doing something less interesting and better paid.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
More time to do what I really love (not just science). Only need 1 wish.
Tell us a joke.
Really? Most are unprintable… how about a bad maths joke: There are 10 kinds of people, those that understand binary, and those that don’t.
A typical experiment in the lab looks something like:
and this is what the whole thing looks like:
Here’s the group and some of the stuff we get up to:
Single-molecules fluoresce, and look like stars in the night’s sky:
Check out my group website for more pics and some movies of our experiments.
If you’re really keen, I also made a video podcast explaining what we do.