Favourite Thing: The moment of anxious excitement before the results of an eagerly anticipated experiment appear is utterly priceless!
I overcame a fear of injections to start medical school (training to be a doctor) at the University of Oxford in 2008. In 2011, I got distracted by lab science, and started working on a PhD (a four-year research project) at the same uni. After, I’m going back to medical school to finish conquering my injection-phobia (and become a doctor). Before this, I did the usual GCSEs and A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and French at King Edward VI Handsworth School in Birmingham.
GSCEs, A-Levels and a BA in Medical Sciences
Receptionist in a hospital (lots of practising my phone voice; fun!); medical records clerk (lots of filing: also fun *cough*); running art classes in a residential home (awesome)
I’m a PhD student at the University of Oxford
University of Oxford.
Me and my work
I look at how our cells zap invading viruses!
Viruses can wreak havoc with our bodies. From a simple sore throat, to grotty runny noses or serious life-threatening diseases, infections caused by viruses can cause tons of problems. Unfortunately, we only have medicines to cure a few of these diseases and desperately want more! My job is to investigate a new way to kill viruses. Fingers crossed, the information we get from this might help other scientists to design new medicines.
In many ways, viruses are fascinating critters! They are made of the bare essentials needed to get into our cells and make copies of themselves. A bit like a hacker getting into a computer system, once they infect our cells they survive by hijacking the normal processes which keep us ticking. To do this, they have an instruction manual, made out of DNA or a similar code called RNA, and come wrapped up in a protective coat made of proteins. There is a lot of debate as to whether they are actually even “alive”.
Hackers jacking computers normally face defences to block them from accessing the system, things like firewalls and anti-virus software. Like this, our cells have loads of strategies to block viruses from infecting them and making copies of themselves. When our cells notice that they have an unwelcome virus visiting they do two things. Firstly, they send out DANGER! signals to their neighbours, who can then arm themselves against attack. Second, they start to make special tools (enzymes) to chew up the virus and stop it making copies. Hopefully, this should zap the virus and save our cells!
Sometimes our usually awesome defences don’t work properly and the viruses can hang around for ages, causing lots of nasty damage to our bodies. Often this is because the viruses are also super-smart and can cleverly outwit our cells’ plans for killing them. My “favourite” (only kidding, it’s pretty horrible…) virus is called Hepatitis C Virus (a.k.a. HCV). HCV infects our liver cells and can really cleverly dodge the body’s virus-killing tools. When people have had HCV for a while their livers can totally pack up and really unlucky people can get liver cancer. The drugs for HCV are not very good and cause terrible side effects, so we desperately want to find new treatments. To do this, I want to do experiments to check out in more detail how our cells zap invading viruses and then see if this new information can help to design new medicines to cure HCV.
My Typical Day
Experiment/drink coffee (nom)/experiment/eat lunch (nom)/listen to a talk/experiment/eat cake (nom)/learning about other people’s ideas/eat a KitKat (nom). Basically, it’s a never-ending cycle of cake and having fun in a futuristic lab…
What I'd do with the money
Fund a dance project…explaining the human digestive system through funktastic moves ;)
Only kidding, my moves aren’t funktastic 🙁
In conjunction with a professional choreographer (umm, yeah, so she doesn’t know that I got a D- in year 9 dance…), I’m helping to set up a show which explains the digestive system (a really weirdly interesting part of the body, honest!) through interpretative dance. We would love it to tour shows and festivals to excite and inspire families and children about science and human biology. The money would be an incredible boost to this, both for costumes and materials for the in-show experiments!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Quirky, enthusiastic and curious
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The Smashing Pumpkins (but Enrique Iglesias is my guilty pleasure…)
What's your favourite food?
Nutella: the official breakfast of the Italian national football team.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
What did you want to be after you left school?
A hospital doctor. I would still love to be a paediatrician (a specialist in children’s health).
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Umm, maybe a little…
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology, because the natural world is often far stranger and more fascinating than fiction.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Finding out that an unexpected protein could help cells kill viruses was exciting! I couldn’t catch a wink of sleep that night, and dashed into the lab the next morning to investigate it some more! It’s totally mind-blowing to think that you might just have caught a glimpse of something that nobody else has ever encountered.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
There are so many unanswered questions about diseases and medicine. If I’m lucky enough to complete my aim and become a doctor, I really want to be able to reassure my patients that scientists are trying to track down answers for them. I would love to play a part in that mission and this inspired me to take up science.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A cartoonist or a doctor (or even a doctor who explains medicine with cartoons…)
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
The power to donate unlimited extra wishes to everyone; to levitate (party trick!) and the power to transform cartoons and drawings to life.
Tell us a joke.
Which cheese can you use to lure a koala? Camenbert!
This is our beloved lab centrifuge: despite being ancient and prone to kicking off a strop, it is one of our most prized pieces of equipment. Its job is simple: to spin test tubes around at incredibly high speeds (around 30 times a second!). We use it to separate out mixtures of different things, for examples the cells in the blood, based on how large and heavy the various bits are. Bigger, more dense things like cells are flung to the bottom of the tube, but lighter things float to the top.
This is my desk in the lab. Naturally, the beaker wearing a wig and fluffy brain cell are critical weapons in the fight against viruses!
Most of my experiments happen in cells grown in the lab. The cells originally came from a liver cancer so they grow and divide very quickly. We grow them in special sterile flasks and keep them in a temperature-controlled box (the “incubator”) at human body temperature (37C).
Inside the flasks, the cells grow in a reddish-orange liquid called “medium”. The medium contains all of the bite-sized nutrients (sugars and amino acids) that the cells need to grow, along with some antibiotics to stop them getting infected with bacteria.
The colour of the medium changes from red to orange-yellow as the cells increase in number and start to make lots of acidic waste-products (it’s like the pH indicators you might have used in acid-alkali experiments). This lets us know it’s time to refresh their medium and give them a little more space to grow.
Here’s a picture of me feeding my cells fresh medium. Someone was telling a joke when the photo was taken, hence the general smiley vibe…only kidding, we’re *always* this happy at work 😉
Cells are incredible under the microscope! These ones have been made to produce a special protein which glows bright green under the microscope so we can see the borders of the cells and their overall shape (thanks to Pramila for the photo!).
I find it beautiful that we all started out looking not all that different from one of these, but grew into such crazily complex beings. How on Earth does it happen? Being able to ask big questions like this, and to listen to more experienced people’s ideas about them, is one of the best bits of working in science. Very little is off-limits to investigate, however scary and difficult the questions might seem!