Favourite Thing: The moment when we have a new idea about how to use maths or statistics to understand biological data, and then the moment a few weeks later when our computer programs are running and we can see if it has worked or not.
1975-1982: Wolstanton County Grammar School & Marshlands High School, Newcastle-under-Lyme 1982: Tulsa University, USA; 1983-1986 & 1988-1991: Cambridge University
PhD (Zoology); BA (Maths); A-levels (Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, General Studies)
2002-now: European Bioinformatics Institute, near Cambridge; 1995-2002: Cambridge University; 1991-1995: National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill; 1986-1988: Natural History Museum, London
Research Group Leader & Senior Scientist
European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute, near Cambridge
Me and my work
We study the differences in the genomes DNA of living organisms, to work out how they are all related by evolution and to understand what the different bits do.
Every cell of every living thing contains its genome, a chemical molecule that contains the coded instructions for building a new copy of that living thing. Copies of the genome are passed on from parents to children, and sometimes there are small differences — mutations.
Because of mutations, different things’ genomes are all little different: two humans will have very similar genomes, but even very different creatures’ (like humans’ and birds’) genomes can be compared and similar parts found.
My work is to use mathematical methods and computer programs to do these comparisons. We can learn about the evolutionary relationships of the creatures from their genomes (questions like, “are humans more closely related to chimpanzees, or to gorillas?”), and we can also learn about what different parts of the genome are for (e.g., “does this gene have something to do with the way humans react to a virus?”).
I work in a team of people who have University degrees in mathematics, computer science, biology and biochemistry. Between us, we have a lot of different skills that we combine to find new solutions to problems in understanding genomes.
My Typical Day
Advising my students and other team members about their research work, planning new projects, helping other scientists understand their data; and if I’m lucky I’ll have time to work on the next interesting mathematical puzzle or computer program.
As well as my scientific research, I take care of the students who are studying at our Institute and I am on one of the Institute’s management committees. So a typical day probably includes one or two meetings about those things, talking to the students about how to make their studies easier or planning how to develop our Institute’s work.
Once that’s out of the way, I spend too much time answering e-mails, and not enough time thinking about new scientific ideas. At the moment, I am preparing a presentation on some of the new ideas two of my students have been working on.
What I'd do with the money
Buy more Lego, which is the best way I know to explain the problems involved in studying DNA.
In the last year or so, I’ve realised that Lego blocks are a great way to illustrate genomes. The chemical molecule of the genome is DNA, which is a long series of small molecules called nucleotides. There are four types of nucleotide, called A, C, G and T, and they can joined together in a long string in any order, like ACGTCGTGAC… If we get Lego blocks in four colours — yellow for A, blue for C, green for G and red for T — we can make a model of the DNA: yellow-blue-green-red-blue-green-red-green-yellow-blue…
I’ve bought some Lego, and have been using it to show people about DNA, genomes, and the way information can be encoded. Here’s the longest example so far, created by science blogger @scicurious (scroll down this page for another example, feat. someone [sort of] famous):
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
helpful, competitive, disorganized
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Frank Turner: for example, Try This At Home
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Safaris in Uganda and South Africa: lions, giraffes, elephants…
What did you want to be after you left school?
Something to do with maths
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
No, I was the annoying kid that tried hard at every subject. Sorry.
What was your favourite subject at school?
PE. And maths.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Worked out a way of recording computer files using DNA instead of a memory stick or a hard disk.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
The idea that I use maths to find out something useful, that no-one knew before.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A rock musician. I’m rubbish at music, but I love listening.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
More time, a plug-in hybrid car, and for my son’s football team to win their league.
Tell us a joke.
Two muffins are being cooked in the oven. The first muffin says, “It’s hot in here.” And the second muffin replies, “OMG! A talking muffin!!”
This is me, teaching people about how different parts of genomes evolve at different speeds:
Here’s a picture of my research team taken where we work at the European Bioinformatics Institute:
And here’s my friend Ewan Birney using Lego to show the Government’s Science Minister, David Willetts, how we used a code to record computer files in DNA: