Alexis Barr

Super impressed by the questions today! Thanks everyone!

Favourite Thing: I love designing experiments and then doing them, especially if they work (they don’t always). Doing experiments is fun because its completely hands on – not sitting staring at a computer screen all day which I find really boring. I love using microscopes and making movies of cells to find out how they reproduce.



I went to Wakefield Girls’ High School for my GCSEs and A-Levels. Then I went to the University of Cambridge for my Undergraduate, Masters and my PhD.


My first degree was a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Natural Sciences (2004), then I did a one year Masters of Science (MSci) in Biochemistry (2005) both at the University of Cambridge. Then I did a PhD in Oncology (Cancer Research) for 4 years between 2006 and 2010.

Work History:

I used to work in Asda bakery in my spare time during A-Levels. Then I had a job with Barnsley Council one summer doing data input from surveys. I also had a job in Telesales for a cake company one summer. In terms of science jobs I’ve worked at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the Institute of Cancer Research in London (where I am now), and I also spent a summer at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology in Singapore.

Current Job:

Cancer Researcher


The Institute of Cancer Research in London

Me and my work

I study how cancer cells reproduce to try and find ways of killing them.

I am trying to figure out how cells reproduce, so how one cell becomes two.  This type of cell reproduction is called Mitosis and is really important during growth – as babies grow into adults they need lots of new cells.  Also adults need to replace damaged or dead cells with new, healthy cells.  Normally, cell reproduction is carefully controlled so that the two new cells are identical to the mother cell.  The mother cell has to make a copy of all of its DNA (in the picture below is a cell before it goes through mitosis, the DNA is shown in blue). myimage1  The cell then has to completely change its shape and become round and symmetrical. myimage2  When the cell is symmetrical it then has to organise all its DNA in the middle of the cell.  It does this by building scaffolding to hold the DNA in place.  This scaffolding is called a Mitotic Spindle and is shown in green in the image above.  The mitotic spindle is also symmetrical so that when all the DNA is in the middle of the cell, the spindle can pull the DNA apart into two new cells.  I’ve drawn a cartoon to try and show this. myimage4

In cancer, cells reproduce out of control.  They make lots of copies of themselves in the wrong place and at the wrong time and that is why a tumour develops – which is a lump of cells.  In this image: myimage3 you can see that this cell is not symmetrical any more.  This is a cancer cell trying to go through mitosis.  How do you think this cell will separate its DNA?  What do you think will happen to the new cells then?

What I am trying to understand is how is mitosis different between normal cells and cancer cells.  If we can figure this out then we can make drugs that will only kill the cancer cells and will let healthy cells reproduce as normal.  I use microscopes to film cells that are going through mitosis.  I take away different genes and see what happens to mitosis when that gene is gone.  Humans have 30,000 genes and so this is a big job!  I use a robot to help me look at lots of genes at once, otherwise this would take a VERY long time.  I also use plates that have 384 wells so that I can look at 384 genes in one go. myimage5


My Typical Day

Feed my cells, put cells on the microscope to film them, watch the movies to find out how the cells behaved.

I get into the lab and put on my lab coat.  The first thing I do is to check on all the cells I am growing.  Are they growing well?  Do they need feeding?  Can I use them for an experiment?  Because I do all my experiments on cells its really important that I look after them well.  It’s a bit like gardening – feed them, prune them (get rid of the dead ones) and make sure they don’t overgrow the space they’re in.

All my days are different – which I like.  Typically, I might put some cells on the microscope and start filming them.  If I take a picture of them every 10 minutes I can watch them grow and go through mitosis. While the microscope is running, I might study some data on my computer.  This means watching the movies and trying to work out what is happening and how things change when I’ve taken a gene away.  Do the cells take longer to go through mitosis?  Are they still dividing symmetrically?  Are cells dying?   When I have an idea what is happening I have to design more experiments to see if I am right.

Often I have to put my results together into a presentation to present to the rest of my team (there are 10 of us in my team).  It can be scary presenting in front of others but its important to do it so that everyone is up to date with results and to make sure that I keep doing the right experiments.

Once or twice a week we have a seminar.  This is where another cancer researcher from a different University, often from a different country, comes and tells us about their work for an hour. Then we discuss the results.  These are usually really fun because you get to hear about a lot of new and exciting experiments.

I also teach students in the lab.  These are students at University who want to get some experience in the lab.  They have their own projects and I teach them how to do experiments and help them understand their results.  This is always a nice part of my job – getting to teach people new things.

What I'd do with the money

I’d use it for 2 things: 1. to make props to visit schools with and show them how cool mitosis is and 2. to sponsor The Cell Experience Project (see below for details!).

I enjoy going into schools and explaining to students what I do and why I enjoy it.  I never thought I would be a scientist when I was at school because I didn’t really know what a scientist was or what they did.  I chose my favourite subjects to do at GCSE and A-Level and it was only at University that I realised I could be a scientist and get paid for it!  Mitosis (cell reproduction) is really fascinating.  It’s beautiful to look at but can be complicated to explain.  So I would use some of the prize money to make props so that students could hopefully understand better how Mitosis works.  I would use the rest of the money to travel to different schools to show students what I do and so that they can ask me questions.

The other project I would spend the money on is best summarised here:  This is a very exciting new project being carried out by a colleague of mine (Julia – she’s in the team picture below, far right).  It’s a fantastic idea to make a planetarium but for cells instead of stars so that people can go in and experience how cells grow, replicate and move, plus lots more. Read the website for more details.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Short, loud, happy

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What's your favourite food?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

Travelling around New Zealand in a camper van.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I had no idea. Because I liked maths I thought maybe an accountant.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Usually for talking in class.

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Discovered how a gene might cause some people to have very small brains.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

The first time I went in a real working lab and did an experiment of my own I was hooked.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I really don’t know! A museum curator? A teacher?

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I’d love to have more time to have a dog (you can’t really bring a dog into the lab). I would like a limitless supply of money to do experiments. I would also like a cleaner for my flat.

Tell us a joke.

What do you call cheese that’s not yours? Nacho cheese!

Other stuff

Work photos:

myimage6 This is me using a sterile cabinet to feed my cells.  I have to be careful to keep my cells away from bacteria and fungi which can kill them.

myimage7 Here I’m using a microscope to look at my cells.  I’m looking to make sure they are healthy and checking if they need more food.

myimage8 This is my lab bench.  It’s quite messy.  But I know exactly where everything is!

myimage9 Our lab robot.  Our robot is brilliant.  It saves us loads of time by helping us to do experiments when we’re not in the lab (like overnight).

myimage10 These are some members of my lab.  Behind me are (from left to right) Louise, Rico, Rui and Julia.