Ballyclare High School, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland for GCSE/A levels, Oxford University for medical school, Edinburgh University for more clinical medicine training then Cambridge University for a PhD
MA (Human Physiology, Oxford University), MBChB (Hons) from Edinburgh University, PhD from Cambridge University
Oxford University, Edinburgh University, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, National Hospital for Neurology/Neurosurgery London, St Georges Hospital London, Addenbrookes Hospital Cambridge, University of Cambridge
I'm a Research Fellow in the Department of Medicine of Cambridge University and Honorary Consultant in Nephrology and Transplantation in Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge
University of Cambridge
Favourite thing to do in my job: thinking up interesting questions - thats way more important than coming up with answers!
I'm a medical doctor and a scientist, trying to understand immune diseases so I can treat them better
I’m a medical doctor – I went to medical school, work in a hospital, treat sick patients….. but I spend most of my time trying to come up with better ways of treating the diseases I look after.
I grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland (Ballyclare) before going to Oxford University for preclinical medicine. I then studied clinical medicine in Edinburgh University and worked both there and in London as a doctor before going to Cambridge University for my PhD. I’m still there now, working in the Department of Medicine.
I also have 3 small kids so have to balance science, medicine and life, too (not always easy!) and have worked with industry (drug companies), University admissions (doing interviews) and helped set up a company to help take new technology into hospitals, too.
I try to understand why our immune system goes wrong and try to come up with new treatments to fix it when it does.
I’m interested in diseases where the immune system doesn’t do what it should. To work properly your immune system needs to be able to fight off any infection that exists or that might ever exist. As if that wasn’t enough, it has to do this without damaging your own body.
The patients I look after have immune diseases where their immune system either doesn’t work well enough or attacks things it shouldn’t (giving diseases like diabetes or multiple sclerosis). I also look after patients who have had organs transplanted in because theirs don’t work well enough (kidneys, for example).
Most of my work takes place in the laboratory, though, trying to improve the way we treat immune diseases. I work on what is often called ‘big data’ – technology has advanced to let us make many thousands of measurements at once where we used to spend ages measuring one thing at a time. I measure many things at once in patients with a range of immune diseases including diabetes, transplantation, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease. The measurements include different genes or the products of those genes, including messages and proteins. Its not unusual to get millions of measurements in one go from many people – and this might only take an afternoon!
Increasingly, the difficult bit is working out what all that information means. I use computer programmes and types of machine learning to pick out interesting patterns in all that data and try to work out what it means. We have used these patterns to develop tests for patients – to predict if their disease is going to get worse – and are using it to develop new treatments, too.
The benefit of measuring everything is that we aren’t limited to thinking about what we already know – we can find truly new things we never suspected would be there. It can be genuinely exciting to uncover something for the first time that no-one else has ever seen…..
I start the day with an unhealthy number of cups of coffee…
…then get started. Most days are different – which is unusual in a job. I might spend time analysing new data, writing papers or researching new ways to work. This means a lot of time spent on my computer and science involves an increasing amount of ‘dry work’ – a side effect of generating lots of data quickly is that you spend more time analysing, something that has changed massively and continues to change, too.
More traditional experiments still form an important part of the lab, too. We use data to come up with ideas, then test them using immune cells from patients or healthy volunteers that are grown in a dish. We might be testing how they respond to a new treatment, for example.
I spend quite a bit of time having meetings, too, discussing results with other scientists. Being able to communicate and work with other people is hugely important.
I also collaborate and work closely with other research groups around the world. I didn’t expect travel to feature in a scientific career but it really does. Meeting with other groups and presenting work features at some point in most weeks.
What I'd do with the prize money
Science is driven more by questions than answers. I would use the money as a prize for schools to come up with the best science question.
Einstein once said “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.
As with many things, he got it just right. Science thrives off good questions, much more than good answers. I would argue that encouraging budding scientists to think up great questions would be fascinating, productive and – I have no doubt – would result in some really cool science projects. We might not be able to actually answer them with the prize money, but it would be offered to the best idea (as judged by a panel of scientists) to at least have a go.
I would invite schools to think up the most interesting question they can imagine – and to have a go at considering how they would address it. Best idea gets the money and plenty of encouragement!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
an overgrown child
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
discovered something that changes how I treat my patients
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My university flat mate - thinking and discussing stuff we didn't understand became fun
What was your favourite subject at school?
english literature just about beat biology but it was close
What did you want to be after you left school?
either a doctor, a writer or a sculptor......
Were you ever in trouble at school?
ohhhhh yes. details on request. maybe....
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I hope I'd be a writer (fiction rather than science)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
DJ Shadow/Cut Chemist (I know thats 2 but they're best together....!)
What's your favourite food?
mushed banana with milk and yoghurt (my favourite since I was 2 and still going strong...)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
swimming with piranhas
Tell us a joke.
What do you call a monkey with a stick of dynamite? A Baboom