Thank you for all of your questions and your votes too. It really means a lot :)
Graveney School (2000-2007: secondary and 6th form), University of Southampton (2007-2011), University of Oxford (2012 – present)
Master of Mathematics degree, A-levels in Maths, Physics and Biology, AS-levels in Further Maths and Computing
Republic retail store, Jesters Nightclub, University of Southampton Students’ Union, Oxford International College
DPhil student (that’s Oxford weird name for a PhD student)
University of Oxford
Favourite thing to do in my job Tough question but it has to be writing maths to describe something in nature. One of my favourite ones was writing maths to work out how human skin maintains a certain level of calcium. If you think that’s strange, have you ever wondered why skin grows as thick as it does and knows when to stop growing thicker? Now that’s something I don’t think anyone truly knows.
I spend my day writing maths and computer code to see if I can explain how proteins (biological machines in our bodies) get damaged when you shoot X-rays at them
I am in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford. I work in an area of science called X-ray crystallography. Never heard of it? Let me explain…….
When things get really small, like the cells that make up our body, we use a microscope to see them. But some of the things that we want to see (like proteins) are just too small to see under a normal microscope. Instead we have to shoot crystals that are made of these really small things with X-rays instead of normal light. Doing this creates certain patterns that we call diffraction patterns. We can analyse these patterns (with MATHS) to work out what the small object looked like. But there’s a catch! The X-rays damage the small objects as you shoot them. This destroys the patterns and you may not be able to get enough patterns to analyse and work out what the small object looks like. My project involves using maths and computer code (and even experiments in the lab) to correct the damage that the X-rays do to the objects. In biochemistry, the objects we look at are proteins but you can look at the really small atomic structures of anything: salt, diamonds, aircraft wings, …… the list is endless.
My Typical Day
I get into work….. think a little bit….. write some maths, code it up and plot graphs to see if it works….eat something……..plan what experiments I need to do to prove the maths write or wrong.
I usually spend my day with old school pen and paper (the best way) and Google (because I don’t know what I’d do without it) and sit at my desk thinking and writing maths. I love writing maths to model things and in my current research project I’m modelling how X-rays damage crystals made up of proteins molecules. More specifically I really care about how they damage the beautiful X-ray diffraction patterns that we need (see the “More about me and my work” section to find out why we care about this damage).
I do find that most of my best ideas come when I’m not actually at work so I go for walks in the park (1 minute walk from my work) if the sun is out. This clears my head and I get a chance to really think. When I’m ready, I get back to the computer and translate the maths that I write down into computer code so I can draw plots and simulate what’s going on.
Sometimes there’s no way I can know if the maths is right unless I do the experiments. On these days I go into the lab and mix chemicals with protein molecules to grow crystals. Then we take them to a really big place that generates X-rays called Diamond Light Source synchrotron. I then shoots the crystals with X-rays and get all the data I need to get back to the lab and write code to test the results.
Some days I have meetings about my plans, I go to seminars where I listen to other researchers talk about their projects. I also have a journal club where my supervisor and the rest of my research group meet up and talk about a recent scientific paper that has been published.
I love my job 🙂
What I'd do with the money
Use it to put on public engagement events with the British Crystallographic Association Education and Outreach team
I’m currently the deputy chair of the Young Crystallographers Group and I would like to use the money for outreach events to increase the general awareness of crystallography as a science. Not have heard of X-ray crystallography and less know what it is, but actually it was one of the most important sciences of the 20th Century. It allowed us to understand what the world looked like on a scale that we’ve never ever seen before. It allowed us to understand why penicillin works to kill bacteria, how to make insulin for diabetic people so we didn’t have to give them insulin from pigs.
I would like to use the money to buy equipment such as a microscope and laser pens with diffraction gratings so that we can demonstrate crystallography at public engagement events. We can usually get hold of the chemicals required to grow the crystals, but with the microscope we can connect it to a screen to show people what crystals look like as they grow. The diffraction pens can be used to show people why we get patterns whenever we shine X-rays at a crystal.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Crazy, Funny, Motivated
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Managed to show (with maths) that some of the data that the people at the X-ray beam source (synchrotron) were giving users was wrong and managed to change the information for all users of the X-ray source.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My A-level physics teacher
Were you ever in trouble at school?
(Should I say?)………yes. Yes I was
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Perhaps an actor. I used to do drama and I’ve been in a few university productions
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Stevie Wonder – He writes such emotive song lyrics
What's your favourite food?
Anything BBQ style – pulled pork, burgers, steak, you name it!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Quad biking with my sister in Egypt :)
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) I wish I would one day deliver the Christmas Lectures on TV to inspire people about the wonders of maths and science. 2) I wish I could run as fast as Usain Bolt (he earns a lot of money for being able to run fast). 3) I wish I had more wishes
Tell us a joke.
Last night I dreamed that I was weightless! I was like, 0mg
Me giving a talk at a science communication event in Oxford in December
At the X-ray synchrotron. From left to right: Me, Gleb Bourenkov, Elspeth Garman (My supervisor), Thomas Schneider
Crystals of a protein called lysozyme that I grew in the lab
Example of a diffraction pattern that you get when you shoot a crystal of a protein with X-rays