Undergrad-Edinburgh University (1999-2003) PhD-Sussex University (2003-2007)
Scottish Highers, degree, PhD
University of Edinburgh, Roslin Institute (where they made Dolly the cloned sheep), University of Oxford
University of Oxford
Favourite thing to do in my job: Turn tables of boring 1s and 0s into pretty pictures that can be used to help explain my data to people.
I’m looking for gene differences in DNA taken from Staphyloccus aureus bacteria (like the one in my picture!) sampled from healthy and sick people to try and find out why some bacteria live harmlessly on the skin for years and others cause disease or kill.
The lab I work in is an exciting place to be because the science we do is a bit abstract and full of maths, but our results are used to feed into how nurses and doctors treat patients.
I’m part of a team using what we know about evolution to help doctors figure out how infection is spread and how quickly bacteria evolve. If you get infected by a bacteria (or a virus), the bugs evolve inside you, so you end up with a population of individual bacteria. We can take samples from patients (usually snot or poo, eww!), smear them on a plate and see what grows. We then grind up the bacteria and get their DNA out and run it through a machine which tells us the sequence of that DNA. By comparing the DNA from lots of different bacteria from the same species, we can ask lots of interesting questions.
For example bacteria can evolve resistance to different antibiotics very quickly, in some cases becoming “super bugs” that are very difficult to treat. This means that their DNA mutates so that antibiotics no longer kill them, meaning people stay sick for longer or even die, so looking for the genes that make bacteria more harmful or resistant to drugs is a big part of what we do.
Or if there is an outbreak of disease in the hospital, sequencing DNA can help us see how the disease is spreading from patient to patient, very quickly.
I think my lab is a good group to be part of because there are so many people with different skills. We have everyone from software engineers to clinical doctors.
Here is a “tree” showing the relationships between a set of DNA sequences from Staphylococcus bacteria. The branch points (where two lines join) show the common ancestor of groups of sequences, so we can see which bacteria are closely related and which are more distant. Each of the coloured “tips” on the tree is the sequence from a single bacterium.
The red dots show that the bacteria came from a healthy person and yellow dots show that they are from a sick person. There are two forms of this gene, shown in purple and green (orange means that we have no sequence for this gene for that bacterium). Can you work out whether the purple gene (mutant) is found mostly in healthy or in sick people, or in both?
My Typical Day
I write and use computer programs to compare DNA sequences from different bacteria, using statistics.
I spend a lot of time wondering why the computer isn’t doing what I’ve told it to. Computers are dangerous because they do exactly what you tell them to, so if you tell the computer by accident to delete all your work, it will do it. Not that I’ve ever done that, of course ( 😉 ). But I do sit in front of a computer all day.
Most days I love my job, but a lot of what we do every day is a bit hard or boring (a lot like school) so I always try to remember that our goal is to help doctors and nurses do better at treating people. It takes a lot of little steps to get from having an idea for an experiment to finding a result that can be published, though.
What I'd do with the prize money
I’d like to help people working in hospitals and patients get a better understanding of the science that goes into the treatment they get in hospital.
Specifically, we want to make an animated video for our lab’s website, so we want some money to hire an artist because none of us are very good at drawing!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
curious, stubborn, thoughtful
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I used to work on a virus that gives chickens cancer, I think that’s pretty important. So either that or this job.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I discovered that I really like solving problems.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I have to admit I would get naughty if the lessons were boring or too easy or too hard, so yes.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
a teacher or writer
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
playing roller derby
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I have no idea! I do really wish that all kids from all different countries had the opportunities and support I did, so they could all follow their dreams.
Tell us a joke.
There are 10 types of people in this world–those that understand binary and those that don’t.