Photo:

Iain Moal

Favourite Thing: I love the moment when I’m studying something difficult and then, suddenly, it just clicks and makes sense. It feels like I’ve managed to grasp one of nature’s secrets. I also like traveling and meeting other scientists, especially those who study different things, as they often come from a different perspective and change the way I think about things.

My CV

Education:

Burnham Grammar School (GCSEs), Henley College (A-levels), The University of Nottingham (Masters degree), University College London (doctorate)

Qualifications:

MSci in Chemistry with Computational Chemistry, and a PhD is Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Work History:

I did a PhD at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, before moving to Barcelona in Spain

Current Job:

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Employer:

Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Me and my work

I run computer simulations to work out how the protein molecules interact with one another in living creatures, and form the different types of molecular machinery which make life possible.

Every human being has trillions of cells, each of which have around a trillion protein molecules inside them. I study how these molecules bind to one another and assemble into the pieces of molecular machinery which perform everyday biological tasks, from converting food to energy to movement, healing damaged tissue, keeping infections at bay, and maintaining all your organs in good shape. This is important for understanding how life works in healthy cells, but is also important for disease. For instance, protein binding is used to send signals between different parts of the cell, which tell the cell when its a good time to grow and divide. However if this system is broken, the cell can grow and divide uncontrollably and form a tumor, which could lead to cancer.

My Typical Day

I do a lot of computer programming, reading scientific papers, and analysing results from my computer simulations.

I walk to work, but other than that most days are unique. Sometimes I spend days on end writing computer programs to solve a problem I’m working on, other days I will sit and think about the problem, or read papers by other scientists who have tackled it. If I have results I think are good enough to publish, I will talk thorough them with other people in my lab and write a manuscript outlining my investigations. Sometimes I spend all day looking at computer generated images of a protein molecule, trying to understand which parts are important or figuring out how the protein would change if it had a mutation.

What I'd do with the money

I would buy a 3D printer and make 3D models of proteins to teach how they bind to one another.

Like many other people, I am a visual learner. If I want to understand something, it really helps if I can actually see it, touch it and play with it. However, this doesn’t work for protein molecules, because at around a millionth of a centimeter in size, they are far too small to see let alone touch! If I won the competition, I would make 3D models of proteins to help teach students about how they work and attach to one another. You would be able to fit the proteins together, like parts in a 3D jigsaw puzzle, and understand how nature has designed them to bind together to make molecular machinery.

So, “Thats a nice idea, but what would you do with the money?!” I hear you ask. Well, I would put it towards buying a 3D printer, which is like a normal 2D printer, except instead of printing an image on a piece of paper, it prints 3D objects by building them up layer by layer (to see one in action, click here). Then, I will take the 3D coordinates of all the atoms in the proteins I’m interested in, and use these to make 3D models which the printer can print. I will have to see which proteins are best suited to the task, but I think a good example would be the four proteins which bind to one another to make haemoglobin, a small molecular machine which transports oxygen in the blood. Another good example would be the binding of an antibody protein to pollen proteins – this is the first step in causing an immune response to pollen in the air, which is commonly known as hay fever.

The very first people to get these models will be you! That’s right – the first ones I make I will send to the schools that have taken part in the ComputationalBio zone of I’m A Scientist, along with an explanation of what the proteins are and why they are important. Not only that, I will make everything available on-line, so that anyone else with a 3D printer will be able to download the models and print them off for free.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Inquisitive, adventurous and friendly

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I’m listening to a lot of Porcupine Tree at the moment.

What's your favourite food?

You can’t beat a good steak and chips

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Sandboarding on the sand dunes of Huacachina in Peru was pretty awesome

What did you want to be after you left school?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes, but lets not get into that

What was your favourite subject at school?

I loved maths and science, of course!

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

That is a hard question. At the moment I’m working on a side-project aiming to repurpose old drugs for rare diseases. I’m quite proud of this work as it could make a real difference to peoples lives.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I’ve always been interested in how things work, but it was having two really good chemistry teachers which made me choose to study chemistry at uni.

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

A chef. I love cooking – the pan is my reaction vessel.

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

Nothing. Really. I’ve got a job that I love and I’ve just become a dad. I couldn’t be happier and to want anything else would feel like taking for granted what I already have.

Tell us a joke.

What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot! I know, it’s terrible.

Other stuff

Work photos:

Here is a picture of the Torre Girona Chapel next to the lab. It is in an old monastery that has been converted to house the supercomputer that I use to perform my calculations. I don’t go in there much, but I think it is such a cool place to put a supercomputer.

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Here is a picture from a simulation I did with a collegue. It shows what proteins might be like if we could zoom into a cell. The two in the middle are about to collide and bind to one another.

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