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Genes Zone

Meet the scientists!

My CV

School:

Trinity School, Cumbria (1989-1996)

University:

University of Wales, Bangor (1996-1999) BSc (Hons) Biology & Biochemistry; University of Bradford (1999-2000) MSc (Dist) Biomedical Sciences (Medical Microbiology); University of Leeds (2000-2004) PhD Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Work History:

As a student I took summer jobs in factories that made drinks cans, and also one making brake pads; not pleasant experiences! More recently I volunteered for several years as an instructor, writing and teaching material on expedition craft to 13-18 yr olds taking part in a large Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. I’ve worked as a postdoc researcher in other labs, including one working in bionanotechnology – trying to make DNA-based electrical circuit boards 1/10,000th the width of a human hair!

Employer:

I’ve worked at the University of Leeds since finishing my PhD.

Current Job:

Postdoctoral research fellow

Photo:

Jim Caryl

Thanks to ALL of you who voted for me! Thanks to my fellow scientists - keep fighting the good fight guys ;-)

Favourite Thing: My favourite thing is going to scientific conferences. I work within a friendly international research community, so there is nothing better than flying off to the USA or mainland Europe to see old friends, talk geek and to hear about (and fight about) new ideas. The critical feedback of my fellow scientists is essential; without debate to justify our interpretations of what we see in the lab, we cannot improve our science!

Me and my work

I run a fitness gym for bacteria, the ‘Gene Gym’, to see whether being resistant to antibiotics actually makes bacteria unhealthy.

I always wanted to be a scientist, but I just never knew what sort. For most of my life I wanted to be an archaeologist, and then a zoologist, a geologist or an anthropologist, but eventually decided on quite a broad university degree that let me try out just about all areas of biological sciences, and then decided which ones I liked the most. I ended up liking microbiology the most – microorganisms are the most diverse living creature on the planet, they can be found miles under the ground, at the bottom of the ocean, right up to high in the atmosphere, floating around the world. They can live in acid, jet fuel and some like to live in really, really horrible environments, like up your nose! In fact, after studying bacteria that eat oil at university, I decided I wanted to know more about bacteria that eat people, so I went to study medical microbiology and this is the field I’ve been in ever since.

My lab:

I work in quite a big lab that is actually two research groups joined together, but our research is so related we act as one lab. We work on finding out how antibiotics actually work on bacteria, and also how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics. These are two of the most pressing issues in microbiology today, and the outcomes are important for everyone. There are six PhD students (five of whom are female), four postdoctoral researchers (I’m the only male), and two research technicians. There are two lab heads: a lecturer and a Professor. With more than half the lab being female scientists, girls should certainly not feel discouraged from entering science.

 

My Research:

I work on a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus (I’ll call it Staph for short) that lives up your nose and several other places. In a classroom of 30 people, probably 10 of you permanently have it up your nose. This isn’t a bad thing, it lives with us without problems, just one of thousands of different species of bacteria that live on your body. You’ll most commonly see the effects of them in big spots, infectious rashes called impetigo, or in oozing yukky cuts. Your body gets rid of most of these, and more serious conditions can be treated with antibiotic medicine without problem.

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An image of actual Staph cells from my lab (I put teeth on some of them to show that, occassionally, some of them can turn nasty)

However, this bug has a dark side; some strains of Staph are resistant to lots of antibiotics (we call these MRSA, which people often refer to as a ‘Superbug’) and can cause infections in the very young, sick people and elderly people, and from time to time they infect otherwise healthy people. These infections are difficult to treat and often very powerful (and quite toxic) antibiotics need to be used. It’s important to note that it is individual bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, not ‘your’ body. Also, even if you do have an antibiotic resistant bacteria on you, and most people do, this doesn’t mean that it is more likely to cause an infection.

Given the right conditions bacteria will almost always eventually evolve a resistance to an antibiotic, especially if the antibiotic isn’t used at the correct concentration (like when you forget to take your pills) – the alternative for the bacteria is death, so there’s a lot of pressure to become resistant. Resistance means they survive the antibiotic, and it comes in many different forms (think of all the different ways you could ‘resist’ getting wet in a rain storm: hide inside, use an umbrella, wear waterproof jacket – each are useful in their own ways etc.).

BUT, being resistant to an antibiotic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for the bacteria, it sometimes comes at a ‘cost’, and this cost is something that limits their ability to grow and compete against other bacteria once the antibiotic is gone (what good is a rain jacket on a hot sunny day, or an umbrella in windy weather? – you’d do better without them).

So one thing I am trying to find out is why the most common strains of MRSA manage to hang on to their antibiotic resistance and continue to compete against other bacteria, even in the absence of antibiotics. I’m also trying to make a list of antibiotic drugs where resistance to those drugs is really hard for the bacteria to maintain, because their resistance makes them really unfit. These are the type of drugs that we could stop using for a few years and hope that those unfit strains will have been lost from the environment.

My Typical Day

My body wakes up early in the morning, and my brain wakes up just before lunch – somewhere between these two points I plan my day, and my best research is done late into the evening ;-)

In addition to being a research scientist, I’m also the residential warden of a large halls of residence, so act as academic/welfare mentor for 500 18/19 yr olds who are living away from home for the first time. So the beginning (and end) of my day involves seeing student residents. I cycle the 3 miles to the lab for around 9.30 am where I then see students I supervise in the lab and talk over the experiments they have planned for the day. I check my emails and then look at my own plans, which I revise depending on whether the bacteria I set growing overnight actually grew!

I spend the bulk of my day at the laboratory bench, sometimes playing with bacteria, and other times playing with their guts (their DNA). Much of my days are 90% preparation for experiments and 10% experiments (with lots of waiting in between). If experiments work, I’m SOOOO happy, even if they disprove something I was expecting to see. Often experiments fail for inexplicable reasons, but this is in the nature of scientific research, you have to get used to it. For some part of every day I have to stare at DNA sequences on the computer to try and understand how my bacteria are changing inside, and I try not to get distracted by emails, Facebook and Twitter (yes, even scientists can get distracted with these), so I usually unplug my internet connection.

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An image of a typical workbench (and one of my colleagues) taken by me.

I tend to work quite late as I can think more clearly in an empty lab, free from distractions. Most evenings I set bacteria growing overnight so that I have enough cells to play with the next day. Sadly it’s often the bacteria that decide when I get to go home, but I leave work between 7.30 – 8.30 pm, cycle home, cook a nice big meal and watch an hour of TV (usually something like House). I have quite a lot of hobbies, but my main one is photography, and I spend a great deal of time processing images; you can see some here http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimcaryl/. I have also blogged about science for many years (my two science blogs can be found via here: http://www.jimcaryl.me), and act as one of the biologists on http://www.askabiologist.org.uk, but there are only so many hours in the day, which means I end up being a bit of a night owl and doing most of this stuff around midnight.

Sometimes we all get information overload, and should remember that sleep is also a good thing!

What I'd do with the money

I’ve been toying with a few ideas, and I’m hoping you’ll help me pick one…

There was a great suggestion last year that the money be used to establish a webcam connection between a school in Africa and a local school here, so they could share a science class. Ive emailed people I know at the World Universities Network (who arrange shared lectures between universities around the world) to see if anyone knows more about the nuts and bolts of doing this.

As an alternative, I was thinking of using the money to fund an experiment where the participants are children from a local school. I would go into the school and take palm-prints on a special jelly that some bacteria like to grow on. One palm-print can be before washing your hand and the other from after you’ve washed your hand. I’ll let all the nasties grow on the jelly (they often have several different colours) and then photograph them – and all the participants would get a printed photograph of the their icky (or clean) hands. Prizes to be awarded for the cleanest hand, or the prettiest display of colourful bacteria, and a booby prize for the most terrible hand.

I’m happy to take suggestions, there are lots of similar experiments to try, but importantly it will mean that I come into a school and talk about what it is I do, why we’re doing the experiment and what we should learn from it.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Zany, chatty, geek

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Well, this depends very much on my mood, but if I’m working on the computer then I listen to Sigur Ros, XX and Bon Iver.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Wow, that’s hard to choose, I do a lot of outdoor sports, but the most memorable was kayaking the lakes of the Algonquin National Park (in Ontario, Canada) and camping in the woods with the wolves and the bears.

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

1. Get my very own laboratory one day. 2. Be an award-winning photographer. 3. Cycle all the best routes in the world (we can dream!)

What did you want to be after you left school?

A marine biologist, this is what I originally went to study at one of the best university schools in the UK, but became fascinated by microbiology.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Occassionally; I fear my German teacher doesn’t have the best memories of me. My German is still terrible :-/

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

Many students and other scientists come to me for help with molecular biology problems, and I LOVE being able to help them with their projects. Other people’s projects are often a great distraction!

Tell us a joke.

An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar; the barman says, “Is this some kind of joke?”

Ask me a question!

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