fell at the last fence! Well done Katherine - a worthy winner.
My family travelled a lot when I was young, so I went to 8 different schools around Britain and Africa between ’82 and ’95.
I studied for a degree in biochemistry at Bath University (’95-’99), then a PhD in genetics at Edinburgh University (’99-’03).
When I was a student I worked as a barman (hence my favorite joke, below). Then I moved to the USA and worked at a small company, Onyx, in San Francisco. After I finished my PhD, I worked as a post-doctoral scientist at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.
I have the grand title of Programme Leader (which means I run my own research lab)
I work at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and am affiliated with Cambridge University
Favourite thing to do in my job: The best part of being a scientist is the “Eureka” moment – when you realize you have discovered something that nobody has ever seen or done before. That is an amazing feeling.
I’m a neuroscientist who looks into genes that influence behaviour, primarily through the sense of smell.
I lead a small team of scientists (Gabi, Elizabeth, Ximena and Maria) who are all interested in how genes affect behaviour. We focus on a special type of behaviour called “instinct“. These tend to be social in nature and happen unconsciously and without much learning. Examples of the instincts we study are:
Sexual behaviour, what causes males and females to mate with each other?
Fighting behaviour, what causes males to fight with each other?
Suckling behaviour, how do newborn babies know how and where to find milk from their mother’s breast?
Fear behaviour, how does fear work and why are we afraid of some things but not others?
Its difficult to study these instincts in humans, so instead we tend to analyse mice interacting with each other. We then work out what the signals are that cause each behaviour, and also what genes are involved in making the mice recognize and respond to these signals. A lot of mouse instincts are caused by “pheromones” – which are special chemical odours (smells) that animals use to communicate. So we focus on the noses of mice, to try and find out how these signals go from the nose to the brain, and then from the brain to make an action (such as fighting). It turns out that many mouse pheromones are found in urine or saliva, so we also spend time collecting those (which, to be honest, is pretty gross) and seeing how mice respond to it.
So you are probably wondering why we do this, right? Well, we don’t yet know for sure whether humans have pheromones, but we are learning a lot about the genes that make our own instincts work by studying instincts in mice. For example, the part of the mouse brain that is most active when mice detect cat pheromone signals is also active in humans that are really frightened watching a horror film. And the part of the brain that processes sex pheromones in mice, is also very active in humans when they have sex. We hope to learn how these natural behaviours work from the genes involved, so then we can find out why they go wrong in some behavioural disorders (like schizophrenia, autism, addiction or phobias)
Other parts of our work involve studying the differences between males and females in their noses or brains and trying to find the genes that control the differences. For example, one question we are currently trying to answer is: do boys smell things the same way as girls do? This is actually a really difficult problem to solve!
Finally, because I spend a lot of my time watching mice socialize with each other, I have learned how to recognize when they are stressed or unhappy. So we also do research into animal welfare. For example, we now know that mice actually like smell of dirty cages more than clean ones, so we don’t clean them out as often as we used to.
I’m also lucky enough to be on our Institute’s Ethical Review Committee, which makes sure everyone’s experiments take into account the welfare of people and animals. I consider this a very important part of our work, because the privilege of working with these amazing animals comes with a moral responsibility towards them.
My Typical Day
Meet with my lab members first thing in the morning to help them plan or interpret their experiments. In the afternoon -if I’m lucky- I’ll squeeze in an experiment or two of my own between meetings. I’ll catch up on emails just before I go home. In the evening I’ll go for a run (which doubles as good thinking time – an important part of every scientist’s day!)
I usually arrive at work around 9am, but the great thing about being a research scientist is that no two days are ever the same. For example, some days I just read papers to learn more about the exciting new research others are doing. If you want to be a successful scientists you have to stay up to date with whats being discovered around the world, so I also spend quite a lot of time travelling to attend meetings in other countries.
On other days I may spend time doing experiments with my students, which is a really rewarding part of my job. Its a lot of fun finding out new things yourself, but even more enjoyable when you make an important discovery while working as a team. For example, recently we have been timing how long it takes different types of mice find a tiny crumb of chocolate hidden in their cage (that is a great test to find out how well they can smell – they usually find it really quickly!) and doing some complicated genetic engineering to produce mice that can’t detect certain pheromones.
I also spend quite a lot of time at my computer analyzing thousands of genes from different mice, to see if I can spot differences that might explain their behaviour. A lot of genetics research is computer based now, so scientists need strong computer skills as well as laboratory skills. I even spent a day, once, making and presenting a video with come colleagues, about our work discovering why mice are afraid of cats. It was great fun, though if you watch the video its pretty clear why I have not given up my day job!
On most days I stay at work until 7pm – using the last few hours (when its quieter) to write emails or reports.
What I'd do with the prize money
Create an educational resource for high schools, based on analysing videos of real behavioural experiments, just like we do in the lab.
Although we run experiments with real live animals to study their behaviour, in most cases we actually video the experiment and someone else in the lab will do the analysis while watching the video play back. This allows the person doing the analysis to be “blind” to the details of the experiment, so they can’t be biased by knowing which mouse they are watching. “Blinding” is an important principle in behavioural research.
If I win, I would hope to use the money to create an educational resource so teachers can download videos of our experiments with worksheets explaining what exactly is being tested. Students can analyse and interpret the videos “blindly”, just as we do. After the analysis is complete, the details of each mouse will be revealed and the students can then interpret their findings and draw a conclusion about what was learned about animal behaviour from the experiment.
I hope that this resource would be fun, teach some important principles of how behavioural experiments are carried out in a real research labs, and also help students learn more about our instincts.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Fortunate. Talkative. Determined.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
A couple of years ago I spent a few days designing and then building a little machine to milk a mouse. It worked brilliantly – I managed to collect about a tablespoon of (very creamy) milk. I should point out I didn’t do this for fun, I needed the milk to identify what attracts babies to the smell of their mother’s milk.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, for talking back to teachers. However I went to school abroad and we used to get caned for misbehaving, so I tried to avoid that as much as possible.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
At the moment: Kitty, Daisy & Lewis.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
White-water rafting around Arenal volcano in the Costa Rican jungle, dodging iguanas and sloths in the overhanging trees!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To continue to do good research (so I can keep my job and continue to develop the careers of my team.) Run a marathon in under 4 hours. Keep my family happy and healthy.
Tell us a joke.
Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, “Olive or twist?”