Thurso High School 2004 University of Edinburgh 2005-2009 University of Southampton 2009-2013
5 Scottish highers (A-levels), CM3 in management, BSc in infectious disease & a PhD in microbiology
University of Southampton, Bioinformatician (analysing DNA using computers)
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Favourite thing to do in my job: Traveling to conferences around the globe I get to learn and share science and experience new places! I even use twitter to help learn and share science!
We sequence the DNA of 20,000 of a bacteria that cause meningitis and pneumonia from around the worldand I compare the DNA from before and after vaccines!
I moved to Cambridge last year to work at one of the leading institutes in the world for decoding DNA, The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Here at the Sanger Institute there are both large sequencing machines that read the DNA and huge computers called cluster computers that can help us make sense of the information the sequencers give us. One of the cluster computers I use has the same power as over 100 normal computers!
The sequencing army!
There are thousands of different projects happening here and I work on one called the Global pneumococcal Sequencing project (GPS), there is a video online explaining a little more about it http://news.emory.edu/stories/2013/03/video_pnemonia_genome/. This project looks at a bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus for short, which can cause meningitis and pneumonia. There are vaccines for it but there are nearly 100 different types of the pneumococcus and the vaccines can only target up to 13 at the moment. What we need to do is look for which ones are becoming more common and try to understand why. We can ask questions like…
Were they around before we started vaccinating? Did the same types become more common in different parts of the world? Do these types have antibiotic resistance genes?
All this information helps other scientists understand why the changes we see happen so that we can predict them in the future and to help them decide how to design new vaccines that will do an even better job.
The GPS team is based in six locations around the world (UK, USA, Malawi, South Africa and The Gambia). This is us all together at a meeting in India.
My Typical Day
Use supercomputers to study the bacterial genomes, working out which type they are, looking for differences? and antibiotic resistance! :/
I work normal 9-5 hours 5 days a week, I get the shuttle bus to work and back but sometimes I try to cycle the 10 miles from my home to the campus to try and stay fit!
Today I was preparing to give a presentation to give to the rest of my team on what I have been working on since I started here 6 months ago. I used to be quite nervous talking in public but now I quite enjoy it, it takes a bit of practice. I’ve even put in cartoons and jokes to make it less boring.
I also checked the progress of a computing job that I started two days ago, but the job is such a big one it still hadn’t finished. The job is using the DNA sequences of 500 of the bacteria I study to make a sort of family tree and see how all of them are related, when I have finished this diagram I can include it in a scientific article I am writing. This way the information I have learned can be spread around the world. Sharing knowledge, ideas and discussing them with others helps us progress in science.
A small part of our supercomputer….
But I work in amazing workplace not just because of the science but because I can look out the window to the fields and lake, I can wander around them to stretch my legs and I can join in sports during my lunch break, I do yoga on a Wednesday but there is also a gym 🙂
At the end of my day I switch my computer off every night so that I don’t waste energy, it all adds up and I like to try to save the planet 🙂
My work place…
What I'd do with the prize money
A fluorescent light box that can be used in schools to show how bacteria are spread if you don’t wash your hands and a school visit to see the sequencers and supercomputers here.
Many bacteria and viruses are spread on our hands. We touch many things around us all day and then rub our eyes, scratch our nose and handle our food, but we can’t see the bacteria and viruses. There is a kit that you can buy which has a fluorescent light box and a special hand lotion which glows under the fluorescent light. When you cover your hands in the lotion and rub it in so you can’t see it you can put your hands in the light box and your hands will glow bright purple! You can then go and wash your hands and put them back under the light to see if you did the job properly, even the best hand washers usually have areas they miss, usually between the fingers, under the nails!
They use this kit to train doctors and nurses how to wash their hands properly and it shows you that just because you hand look clean they might not be so you should give them a good wash before you eat or after you’ve sneezed all over them!I would also like to arrange for a school visit here to see and learn about all the sequencers and cluster computers, they are very impressive, some sequencers use lasers and literally weigh a ton and some are in rows like an army of robots sequencing DNA, the computing faciltity is very large and there is lots to learn about how we simply keep it cool as it produces so much heat!
The money could provide transportation and refreshment for the students who visit and pay for us to travel to schools with the hand washing kit and talk about how bacteria spread!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Excitable!, sporty and determined!
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Travelled all the way to Brasil and India to show my work to other scientists and learn about their work.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My mum became ill with Epstein barr virus (glandular fever) and couldn’t get better and the doctors didn’t understand, I wanted to understand why we get ill to help.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes :/ I used to talk too much in class.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
An adventure sports instructor! I love skiing, climbing and kayaking!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Cycled 300 miles from London to Paris for charity, it took me 4 days!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I wish I could teleport (so I don’t have to spend time on buses) I wish I could make it sunny and I wish I could spell better!
Tell us a joke.
Teacher: ‘Mac,Can you give me an example of wasted energy?’ Mac: ‘Yes, miss, it is like telling a hair-raising story to a bald-man.’