It has been hectic and fun. Thanks students for all your questions. Well done Jen!
St Andrews comprehensive, Glasgow. Erm…. in the 70’s and 80’s.
I graduated with a BSc degree in physiology from Glasgow University (1986) and a PhD degree from the University of London (1991).
London, Liverpool, Boston (USA), Manchester (with short spells in Korea) and Newcastle.
I teach university students about physiology and am in charge of a research laboratory studying how human cells work.
Favourite thing to do in my job: We often have loads of questions like “I wonder what happens if we just change this …”. So it’s great to be able to design an experiment to test a situation like that, watch it unfold and then let out a “YES!” when it works. It’s my favourite thing because in science even the the best-laid plans rarely work out so, when they do, it’s worth enjoying all the more.
I teach students about physiology and run a research laboratory investigating how a particular cell type – smooth muscle cells – controls tissues and organs in our body.
I have two main aspects to my work: to teach students about physiology and to run a science research lab.
The students I teach physiology to are studying for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) or a Masters of Research (MRes) degree. Physiology is really the study of how humans and animals function (you can also study plant physiology but I know next to nothing about that). It is concerned with how systems work together from molecules to cells to tissues to organs and, eventually, to organisms like you and I. I teach the students about how one particular type of cell – smooth muscle cells – work to control the functions of different organs like the gut, bladder, uterus and blood vessels. The smooth muscle cells regulate the movement of material through these hollow organs – e.g. food movement through the digestive system, urine release from the bladder, delivery of a baby from the uterus (womb) during labour and blood moving through arteries and veins – and so are very important for our normal health. Sometimes, things go wrong in various disease conditions and so the students also learn about these pathophysiologies and how scientific research can help treat such conditions.
I’ve been interested in smooth muscle function since my first-ever lab experiments as a university student and it remains a focus of my research lab to this day. In particular, we study the roles that smooth muscle cells play in maintaining a successful pregnancy in humans so that the baby grows in the womb appropriately and is delivered at the correct time. This involves us looking at the function of smooth muscle cells of the wall of the uterus, but also of the blood vessels that supply the uterus and the placenta (the organ that attaches to the uterus and ‘feeds’ the fetus). We are lucky that we have very good contacts with clinicians in the adjacent hospital. This helps us to study in the lab biopsies of uterus and placenta that have been kindly donated (without any health risk) by real, live humans! Unfortunately, many women suffer complications during pregnancy that mean the baby is delivered too early (preterm birth) and, in these situations, the babies often have very bad outcomes. By seeing how the smooth muscle cells of the uterus and placenta function normally – that is, physiologically – we hope to be able to get a better understanding of what may have gone wrong during the pathophysiology of preterm birth. In that way we may be able to help develop better drugs in the future for treating these conditions.
My Typical Day
I spend much of the day writing about science, preparing requests for research funding or writing papers about our research data to submit to scentific journals, and also discussing with lab members the experiments that they are performing.
Usually I’ll start the day writing e-mails (sometimes even before I leave home) with a cup of Yorkshire tea. Science knows no timezones and we have several colleagues in the USA or Canada who may have tried to contact me when I’ve been asleep. Either that or I’ll be prompted by an e-mail reminder to deal with a report before an impending deadline. This could be a request from a journal to review a scientific paper submitted by other scientists for publication or from a government or charity to review an application for research funding from a laboratory director in another university. Often it is also an internal request from the university asking about some aspect of teaching or administration.
I’ll then catch up with the lab members and check that they have no problems in setting about their experiments for the day (or try to sort out any problems they are encountering).
After that, it’s back to the office with a cup of tea and biscuit(s) to write my own requests for research funding or publication of experimental results. These each take weeks or months to complete from start-to-finish so are on-going tasks.
Towards the end of the day I’ll check that the lab members are still getting on okay with their experiments and chat about what to do the next day.
Later in the evening, fuelled with more tea, I’ll check e-mails again. This usually involves carrying on conversations from earlier in the day with colleagues, dealing with something I’ve forgotten (or to the previously mentioned deadline as it screeches ever closer) or prompting one of the lab members with a thought that has come to me whilst out a run earlier in the evening.
What I'd do with the prize money
I’d visit local schools showing a movie that describes our research, through interviews with the people who do the day-to-day experiments in the laboratory, to encourage future participation in science.
I would make a movie that illustrates the importance of our research but that also highlights the varied and valuable contributions that different people in our laboratory make to that scientific effort. I will interview different lab members – you’ll see people from Ireland, England (Manchester, Cornwall, Kent and York), Scotland (me), France, Hong Kong, mainland China, Poland – and ask them to describe: how they came to be interested in science, how they came to be working at Newcastle University, what their role in lab is (we have undergraduate students performing their first-ever experiments all the way up to senior scientists designing complete projects) and to illustrate examples of real experiments using human tissues and cells. Then, accompanied by lab members, I will visit local schools and show the movie. Afterwards, we will participate in Q&A sessions with the teachers and students.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Inquisitive, running physiologist.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Often I ask “How does that work?”. So, to have had the chance to publish some scientific papers that describe how smooth muscle cells work is very satisfying. Just recently, we published a computer model of how smooth muscle cells of the uterus contract and relax. It took 5 years, involved many people and combined maths and biology so that was rewarding.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, usually for arguing a point of logic with a teacher.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I’ve just realised that most are either dead or getting on a bit but they include ….. Rory Gallagher, Pavement, The Pirates, AC/DC, The Proclaimers, Neil Young & Crazy Horse….
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Spending three weeks travelling around New Zealand.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To remain healthy enough to continue running; To complete a mountain stage of the Tour de France; To take a years sabbatical with my family to New Zealand or western Canada.
Tell us a joke.
Knock, Knock; “Who’s there?”, “Corn Flakes”; “Corn Flakes who?”, “You’ll find out next week – it’s a serial”.