School: Albert-Einstein-Gymnasium Buchholz, Germany (1996-2003); Undergraduate: St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford (2003-2006); PhD: University of Bath (2006-2010)
B.A. & PhD
Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona (2010-2013)
I’m a research group leader at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London
Imperial College London
Favourite thing to do in my job: Having an idea for a new experiment (often followed by learning that somebody else has already done it…)
I use a computer to study how genomes and proteins change through evolution.
One of the things I’m really interested are chaperones. They are a special class of proteins that help other proteins fold properly. A protein starts off just as a string of amino acids, and that string needs to fold into a 3D structure for the protein to work. Sometimes, that folding goes wrong. For example, when cells are heated up, proteins have a tendency to lose their shape. Chaperones can help these proteins recover their shape after this heat treatment.
Sometimes that chaperone assistance has an unexpected side effect: when mutations happen that destabilize the structure of the chaperone client, they are effectively invisible because the chaperone can bail its client out. In some odd bacteria, almost all proteins have really crappy structures but the cell is stuffed full of chaperones that hold things together. Like a broomstick that’s broken in several places – you can still use it when you wrap enough duct tape around it.
So one of the things I do is compare genomes with each other to see what effect chaperones have on how stable all the other proteins are.
My Typical Day
Read – drink coffee – write – drink coffe – repeat
I just started my own lab so recently I have been doing lots of things I had never done before: write job adverts to hire people, fill in health and safety forms (urgh…), or discuss with my colleagues how we’re gonna organize the lab.
But normally I start my day catching up with the latest bits of research in my field, and then spend most of the day analyzing data, writing emails to collaborators to coordinate the research we do together, or working on a manuscript I want to publish in the scientific literature.
It’s fair to say that I sit in front of the computer a lot – but what I do is actually quite varied rather than the same repetitive task over and over again.
What I'd do with the prize money
I’ll give it to my students to plan a public engagement event together
Having just started my lab, I figured this would be a great way to get my new students involved in communicating our research to the public but also to work on something together, brainstorm, develop a project, and eventually carry it out. They should be able to decide themselves how best to use the money, so I don’t know yet what the concrete project is going to be.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, considerate, and silly (according to my girlfriend)
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Starting my own lab
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
I get interested in things really quickly and then the interest often fades away. Biology is the only thing that’s kept on fascinating me so becoming a biologist seemed a logical choice.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
On my very first day in primary school, I got sent to stand in the corner for being disruptive. I think that marked me for life (possibly in a good way…)
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I have no idea. Being a scientist becomes more of a mindset, I think. I struggle to see myself as anything else.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Arctic Monkeys, Beck, Wir sind Helden
What's your favourite food?
Pasta (in fact, anything you can have with parmesan!)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Playing in a 24h non-stop beachvolleyball tournament. I love leaping about in the sand. 24 hours of it: heaven!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A big house with a big roof garden in the middle of London, somebody to do all my laundry for the rest of my life, and for nobody I care about to ever get a neurodegenerative disease (that would just be horrible)
Tell us a joke.
“Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many levels.” (stolen from Tim Vine)