Well done Mario! Looks like you got it!
I did my secondary education at St Bernard’s RC comprehensive School, Barrow-in-Furness (1981-1986) and followed this up with my A levels at Barrow Sixth Form (1986-1988). I studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths with stats and general studies. Then off to Manchester University (1988-1991) for three years of microbiology followed by three years at Birmingham University (1991-1994).
BSc First Class with Honours (Microbiology); PhD (Microbiology)
I’ve worked in the research labs of three universities in the UK: Birmingham, Nottingham & Edinburgh. Some of the most interesting times though have been when we’ve patented inventions (based on our science experiments) and developed small companies to exploit our science. It always seems to involve too much work but when it’s fun you don’t notice!
Senior Lecturer in Cell Biology – that’s my official title but I teach cell biology, immunology and microbiology.
Favourite thing to do in my job: To watch cells dying and getting eaten by other cells! Watching things happen opens up a whole new world of understanding.
I try to understand how our bodies deal with the constant death of cells.
Every second there are about 1 million cells dying in our body and this is normal! It sounds like a huge number but if this didn’t happen we’d get some pretty nasty diseases. My work is all about how our immune system cells recognise and eat the constant stream of dying cells. If the dying cells aren’t eaten quickly, they fall apart and spew their contents into our bodies and this causes inflammation and disease. So spotting death and dealing with it quickly are essential. No one wants to be full of rotting cell corpses!
The immune system cells that do the eating are called macrophages (this means big eater) and they are the prettiest and best cells in our body (in my entirely ‘unbiased’ opinion).
Here’s a picture of a big macrophage eating dying cells. The three circular structures in the middle are nuclei (macrophages can have more than 1 as these cells can fuse). The intense purple bits (see the arrows) are dying cells that have been eaten.
They walk around all day and right through all our tissues to keep checking for death and infection. If they find death, they eat it and keep things calm. If they find infection, they eat it and ring alarm bells so the whole of the immune system power can be thrown at the invasion.
Here’s a snap of cells I’ve made fluorescent. The red cell is a macrophage and the green are the dying cells! This microscopy is called fluorescence microscopy and it lets us see cells (and molecules) if we make them fluorescent.
I am really interested in working out how macrophages ‘sense’ the death in their environment. They seem to do this by detecting little bits of dying cells that are released. In fact this cell death is pretty cool to look at too.
When you see a cell dying (by a process known as apoptosis – pronounced ‘ap-oh-toe-sis’) its surface looks like it is boiling as its membrane bubbles. Check out this image which shows the cell membrane green and you can see surface ‘bubbles’. Some of these bubbles are released and are a sure sign that death is around. The macrophages eat these tasty little starters and follow the trail until they find the main cell corpse – the main course!
Why is this all interesting? Well, quite simply, when cell death happens in a poorly controlled manner you get diseases including cancer, heart disease, neurodegeneration (brain getting ‘old and weak’ – ask your teacher!), autoimmunity (where your immune system attacks you). So if we can understand death and removal of dead cells, we ought to be able to make a real difference!
But I am also a University lecturer and so communicating my passion for research into death is a key part of my job.
My Typical Day
Too much coffee and lots of thinking about cell death.
Coffee, coffee, coffee. But in between I can spend a huge amount of time planning work and thinking up experiments. I don’t often get chance to be in the lab myself now but the best days are those when I am in the lab. On with the white coat and gloves and heading in to culture some cells. Here’s a snap of me and my team from a couple of years ago. OK so it’s a blue coat but you get the idea right?
Often my research will include taking blood out of willing donors and splitting the blood down to its individual parts. If we centrifuge our blood (with a dense liquid added) we can split it into layers. On this photo we see the liquid part of our blood at the top. This is the straw coloured plasma. At the bottom we can see the red cells (very very very deep red from all the red blood cells) and in the middle will be the white blood cells and the dense liquid. We normally isolate monocytes (a type of white blood cell – also known as a leukocyte – that, when mature, is a macrophage). By growing these monocytes in culture we can make them grow up into macrophages and we can watch what they do.
To keep our cells in culture free from infections, we use special cabinets that filter the air to keep it clean. So this protects our cells from the outside world. But these cabinets can also protect the scientist from the work (some stuff we do in labs can be really dangerous).
But I’m also a University lecturer so on teaching days things can be very different – fun but in a different sort of way. It can take some real preparation to be able to stand up and talk to 400 students and explain new and complicated material. But if students see that I enjoy it, they seem to enjoy it too. I always start with a song (but thankfully for the students, it isn’t me singing).
What I'd do with the prize money
Spend it on students for work experience.
I’ve a great team of dedicated students who are studying towards their PhD. I’ve also got a lot of undergraduate students who visit me to gain experience. They are a great group to work with and represent a typical university research environment. I’d use the money to advertise my research to local schools and to identify budding scientists who could join us in my labs to watch cells dying and being eaten. Proper, hands-on scientific research in real labs! Great work experience.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Fascinated by death.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I discovered that immune system molecules (that were thought to defend us only against infection) were important in recognising and eating dying cells in our bodies.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My biology teacher (Mr Rothwell) at sixth form was a microbiologist. His enthusiasm and my love for reading about diseases inspired me to study Microbiology at Uni. From there I needed to know more about how humans deal with infections. Looking at microbes on their own isn’t as useful as it could be. But to see how the human body, the immune system and bugs interact is the full picture. Interestingly I’ve tended to work in specific areas that I swore I wouldn’t. At Manchester Uni I hated the lecture on Chlamydia (a sexually-transmitted infection in the UK and a really, really BIG problem – you might not know you’ve got it but it can be causing you trouble for the future! Stay super safe!) but ended up doing my PhD on the organism (but I got paid for the study so all was good ;-)). I also disliked my immunology lectures at Manchester yet I slowly worked my way round to working in immunology and I now teach this. Weird how life works.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Hmmmm. I once ran an anti-XXXXX campaign (where XXXXX was the name of a vile bully in our year). I got told off but I think the staff really agreed with me!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I really love teaching too so I guess that’s the ‘Plan B’
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Ooh tough one. Just booked KT Tunstall tickets. So her (at the mo). Last month it was P!nk. But you’ve got to love Rhianna too. I love Ocean Colour Scene (from yesteryear!)
What's your favourite food?
Cashew nuts and cheese. Good fats and bad fats. That’s a nice average!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
My first ever taster menu at The Atrium (a really great restaurant in Edinburgh and meant to be Tony Blair’s favourite – however I didn’t let that put me off). I’d never eaten 8 courses before and we had a different wine with every course, all chosen for us by a wine expert. Life can be so tough ;-) Great food, great wine and great company. Amazing.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. More time for research. 2. More money to have people in my lab helping me. 3. To cure (or at least treat) cardiovascular disease (a real possibility if my work goes well as dying cells attract macrophages to damaged walls of arteries in a condition known as atherosclerosis. If we can block this attraction of macrophages, we might block disease).
Tell us a joke.
Knock knock! (who’s there?) Adair! (Adair who?) Adair but now I’m bald. ;-)