Photo:

Jimi Wills

thanks for voting :)

Favourite Thing: Helping other people. Writing computer programs that save people time. Talking about science to anybody.

My CV

Education:

Woolavington Primary, 1984-1985; St Josephs Primary, Bridgwater, 1985-1990; Haygrove Secondary, Bridgwater, 1990-1995; Richard Huish college, Taunton, 1995-1997; Glasgow Uni, 1997-2006

Qualifications:

PhD in Anatomy/Genetics; BSc degree in Cell Biology; A’levels: A Chemistry, A Maths, A Physics, B Biology; 8 GCSEs: A*A* Science, A* Music, A Maths, A French, B English lang, B Geography, C English Lit

Work History:

I’ve worked on a farm, in shops, a hotel, a data centre, and two universities: Glasgow and Edinburgh unis. I’ve also worked with an engineering company who make underwater cameras.

Current Job:

Mass Spectrometry Laboratory Manager – I run two mass spectrometers and help other scientists do experiments on them

Employer:

University of Edinburgh

Me and my work

I use big expensive mass spectrometers to help other scientists fight cancer

I’ve worked with mass spectrometers for about 15 years.  Mass spectrometers are like scales for weighing molecules… molecules are what cells are made of. If you weighed everybody in your class really accurately, you’d be able to tell who was whom just from their weight!  And it’s exactly the same with molecules.

So using the mass spectrometer, I can tell other scientists what molecules are in their experiments, and I can tell them how much there is of each too.  Then the other scientists can grow cells in a dish and compare cancer cells and normal cells, or cancer cells with and without drugs.  This helps us figure out how cancer works, and how the drugs work.

I do some work in the lab, and some at the computer.  I also do a lot of talking with people about how to design the right experiment to answer the question they have, and explaining what the results mean.  And I have to keep the mass spectrometers in shape so they give the best results.

My Typical Day

Always different, but always busy and fun.

When I arrive at work I check my email. There is usually something from another scientist about wanting to run an experiment on the mass spectrometer (mass-spec for short). I need to give them all the info to prepare for the experiment.

Then I check that the mass-specs are working well.

Next I need to get today’s experiments ready, which normally involves a lot of pipetting liquids around. (See “what I’d do with the money” below)  Then I can load the experiments onto the mass-spec and program it to do the right thing.

After lunch, I process the data from yesterday’s experiment… Turning measurements (numbers) into answers (words) and send the results to the scientist whose experiment it was.

Finally, if I have time, I write some computer programs (or web apps) to help organising experiments, processing data, or communicating results.

Usually, somebody wants to do a weird experiment that seems impossible, or sometimes a mass spectrometer breaks down, and it’s my job to make sure everything works.

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At the end of the day I go home on my red scooter to my family, who always save me some dinner.  If there’s time, we play a bit.  Then I bath my kids and we put them to bed.

Then, I often get my laptop out and keep working on data or writing computer programs. Also, I can log in to the mass-spec over the internet, and check that it’s working well.

What I'd do with the money

micropipettes for primary schools

Micropipettes are one of the most famous tools that biologists use, along with microscopes and Petri dishes. Even if you don’t know the name, you probably would recognise one. And they’re the most important tool in the lab… we use them more than pens, calculators and tablets put together.

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Doing an experiment normally involves following a recipe. In the kitchen you use a measuring jug or a tablespoon to measure out liquids, like milk or water. In the lab we use a micropipette, or pipette for short. And getting the measurement just right is very important, otherwise the recipe goes wrong!

I would use the money to buy some pipettes and take them round primary schools in my area to teach kids how they work and how to use them. Much of a biologist’s day is spent using a pipette, so this would give people a really good idea of what it’s actually like to be a biologist.

The money would buy about 5-10 pipettes, and there are about 30 primary schools in my area, so each school could have all the pipettes for about a week per year, or one pipette each for a couple months.

I would also put a worksheet on the internet with notes for the teacher, so any primary school that could get hold of a pipette could try it.

 

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Creative, thoughtful, adaptable

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Carole King

What's your favourite food?

Pizza Margherita

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Learning to drive a powerboat

What did you want to be after you left school?

A musician

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Oh yes!

What was your favourite subject at school?

Music

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Figuring out which proteins are attached to chromosomes

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My girlfriend talking about biology (she’s my wife now!)

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A teacher

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

to see my little brother more often, to be able to speak any language, a lab under my house

Tell us a joke.

Never trust an atom… they make up everything.

Other stuff

Work photos:

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I’m talking to another scientist about mass spectrometry (or mass-spec for short)  A lot of science is talking to other scientists.  We bounce ideas off each other, and generally try to figure out what we know about a thing, and which question we should answer next to know a bit more.

Once we decide on an experiment to do, the other scientists does their part of the experiment and gives me “samples”.  These contain molecules from the cells we want to study.

 

 

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I spend a lot of time pipetting at my work bench.  (Most biologists do)  Samples need to have the right chemicals added to them and then I put them in the right type of container for the mass-spec.

Some samples need to be digested, just like what happens to food in your tummy.  It breaks the molecules into smaller pieces. The smaller molecules are easier for the mass-spec to measure.

 

 

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Welcome to the mass-spec lab!  This room has air conditioning to keep it at exactly 22 degrees C.  This helps the mass-specs to stay accurate.  The big gas bottle is used to pump material into a “column”.

A “column” is used to separate out different types of molecules, so we can measure them one at a time.  It’s like a turnstile at a stadium or theatre, to make sure that people get to the ticket window one at a time.

 

 

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Here I’m re-plumbing the mass-spec.  This is the part where the sample gets pumped into the mass-spec.  The pump on the right pumps the sample at high pressure through the “column” and the molecules come out through this tiny tube.  The inside of the tube is the width of a hair.

The molecules get pumped into the “source”

 

 

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This is called the source and it’s the part of the mass spec where molecules get turned into ions.  This means they are given an electric charge, then the mass spec can move them around.  It’s like when you rub a balloon and then move your hair around with it.

The electric charge in the source is about 2000-3500 volts. That’s 10 times the mains electricity in your house.  And the temperature in the source is about 350 degrees C, which is hot enough to melt lead.  And inside the mass-spec is a vacuum – there’s no air at all – just like in space.

 

 

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At my desk looking at some data (numbers from the mass-spec) and turning them into information that the other scientists can make use of.  These data are made from a sample that was digested.  So first I need to work out which pieces of molecules belong together.   Then I can work out which molecules were in the samples and whether the amount is different in the different samples.  Luckily, the computer helps a lot.

In this particular experiment, the type of molecules we’re looking at is proteins.  The scientist treated some cancer cells with different amounts of radiation.  He gave me 56 samples and I was able to measure well over 5000 different proteins.  It took about 2 days to do the bench-work, a week on the mass-spec and a few weeks of data-processing on the computer.