Passion drives the best and brightest in biology

July 14, 2006

Ditch your assumptions, says Anna Fazackerley, the UK has a lot to shout about when it comes to early career researchers, and there's not a comfy shoe in sight

Higher Hopes

We all know the stereotype: a scientist is an ageing male witha beard, glasses and an unnatural attachment to his comfortable footwear.

In some cases, it might well still be accurate. But it is far from the whole story. A proper look inside universities reveals legions of ambitious young scientists - of both sexes - who are truly passionate about shaping their discipline.

The Times Higher has spoken to key research funders, learned societies and institutions to track down the rising stars in different subjects. In a new fortnightly series, we will bring you brilliant early career researchers from the arts and humanities, the physical sciences and the social sciences.

This week we kick off with some of the leading lights in the biological sciences.

'A lot of discoveries will be made by computer. The icing on the cake will be done in experiments and not the other way round'

Ewan Birney

Some students struggle to get out of bed in time for lectures. But old Etonian Ewan Birney was already publishing science papers while studying for his degree at Oxford University.

At 33, Dr Birney is one of the leading lights in the increasingly crucial field of bioinformatics. He heads a team of "genome code crackers" at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, with funding from the Wellcome Trust.

His most high-profile work has been on the human genome, but he has deciphered an impressive list of other genomes, from the chicken to the platypus, right down to the humble sea squirt.

By devoting himself to this relatively new field Dr Birney has seen his career rocket. "Most people would consider me to be very lucky to be where I am. I have somehow skipped five years," he says.

"I was very lucky to be involved in the human genome project - there was an insane two or three years where everyone wanted everything yesterday."

Biologists are no longer all confined to the lab. As the discipline struggles to comprehend ever growing mountains of data, computer and analytical skills are becoming more important.

Dr Birney, who insists he didn't touch a computer until he was 18, argues that this gives a new generation of scientists a chance to really make their mark.

"I am a totally dry scientist - I never do the wet stuff in the lab. But I'm not sure that everyone has realised this is the way that biology is going," he explains.

"Fundamentally, a lot of discoveries will be made by computer. The icing on the cake will be done in experiments and not the other way round."

Many people in the sector are predicting that Dr Birney is one of the new wave of bioscientists who will go far.

He is evangelical about his mission. "We've got to refocus biology in a world where information is the core," he says.

'It's nice to win an award, but I don't get too excited. I was more excited about Italy in the World Cup'

Dario Alessi

Dario Alessi has the sort of CV that ambitious young scientists would pay serious cash for. At 38 he is a principal investigator in the Medical Research Council protein phosphorylation unit at Dundee University.

He has more than 100 published papers and was ranked the world's 13th most cited scientist in biology and biochemistry for 1995 to 2005.

Professor Alessi has also won a string of top international awards, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Makdougall Brisbane prize.

But the Scottish-Italian, whose big break came when he discovered PDK1, the "missing link" in insulin signal transduction, is not letting such tributes go to his head. "To be honest it is always nice to win an award, but I don't get too excited by these things. I was more excited about Italy's performance in the World Cup," he says.

What drives him is the potential impact that his work could have on health.

Professor Alessi's pioneering research on specific enzymes - kinases - and their role in inherited disease has provided new insights into conditions such as diabetes, cancer and hypertension.

Last year, his team made a splash in the media when it published findings suggesting that metformin, a drug commonly used to treat diabetes, could cut the risk of all types of cancer by 25 per cent.

"Basic research is driven by a bit of curiosity, but it can actually lead to something really important," he says.

One might expect someone with his credentials to be yearning for Oxbridge.

But Professor Alessi is insistent that he has chosen a better life in Dundee.

"It is a unique institution," he explains. "There are a lot of interesting people working within this building, which generates an environment where people really interact."

He adds: "Dundee is a great place to live compared with Oxford or London where the cost of living is so expensive and commuting time is so great - that would make my life unbearable. For the price of a one-bed flat there I can have a four-bed house with a garden."

Professor Alessi warns budding young scientists not to scurry around their institutions without talking to anyone. "Don't be scared to talk about your ideas or results to colleagues. And don't assume that you should already know how to do everything. If someone tells you it's a stupid idea, then at least you'll know," he says. "A five-minute conversation in a corridor can mean the difference between success and failure."

'A career in academia is very hard work. You have to really love science. And having a thick skin helps'

Andrea Brand

Andrea Brand is making her mark in one of the hottest research areas - stem cells. Her team, based at Cambridge University, is working on stem cells in the developing embryonic nervous system, using fruit flies rather than human embryos to avoid the ethical issues.

Her ultimate aim is to learn enough to use stem cells to regenerate and repair damaged areas of the nervous system.

"It helps if people can see the medical relevance of your work," she admits. "This is a high-profile field because of its relevance. That helps for securing funding."

Dr Brand, who is 47, is director of research in developmental neurobiology at the renowned Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. She is excited about the imminent arrival of Austin Smith, one of the biggest names in stem-cell research, who is due to leave Edinburgh University to set up a cancer research centre next door to her.

"I will be affiliated to his new institute as well. That will enable us to further this from what happens in flies to humans."

Dr Brand puts in long hours. But she has to juggle her timetable to look after her six-year-old daughter. "It would be easier if I had a wife," she laughs. "That's not to say anything negative about my other half, who is marvellous. If I were working completely on my own, I would find it quite difficult. But I have support. Some of the people in my lab also have children."

Her advice to young scientists considering academia is to think hard. "It is very hard work. You have to really, really love the science," she says.

"And having a thick skin helps."

'We know horribly little about why images pop into your head when you don't want them to. I would like to understand'

Emily Holmes

Why are some people's glasses always half-empty while others cheerily insist that theirs are half-full? Emily Holmes, a 35-year-old clinical psychologist specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, has broken into research in the hope that she will find answers to such questions. "I would like to grapple with more positive ways of interpreting information in everyday life," she says.

"We are constantly confronted with ambiguity. We have a bias or filter in the way we process information before we are even aware of it. I'd like to investigate how we could promote a more positive bias automatically. We are investigating ways of using a computer to train people to think this way."

The Royal Society has marked out Dr Holmes as a name to watch. Being awarded one of its prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships has given her the financial freedom to juggle her burgeoning research career at Oxford University alongside working with patients one day a week. This balancing act might be tricky, but Dr Holmes is passionate that it is the right way forward.

"Working with patients motivates you to ask questions. But equally you might have a research idea and then, when you see a patient, realise that it is wrong or needs modifying," she says.

Her work with patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder has prompted ideas for research into flashbacks. "Mental imagery can have a particularly strong impact on our emotions. However, we know horribly little about why images pop into your head when you don't want them to. I would like to understand ways to reduce mental images that are distressing," she says.

Like many high-flyers, Dr Holmes tends to throw herself in at the deep end.

She only finished her PhD last year and is building her own small research team within Oxford's department of psychiatry. She has supervised students on the ward, but has never managed a team. "It is both exciting and daunting," she says.

She is unable to contain her enthusiasm when talking about science and is grateful to the Royal Society for giving her a leg up early in her career.

But she has an eye on the future. "It is wonderful having the fellowship, but four years doesn't feel very long to answer all my questions," she says.

'I never work weekends. I work a 50 or 60-hour week but I need my time at the end of the week to switch off'

Giles Oldroyd

Those who fear the American brain drain can take heart from Giles Oldroyd, who is tipped as one of the most exciting new names in UK plant science.

Dr Oldroyd, who runs his own lab in the department of disease and stress biology at the John Innes Centre, discovered his passion for research in the US. But he is adamant that he is staying here.

He first went to the US as an undergraduate, spending a year doing plant science at the University of California, Berkeley. "For me, that experience was life-changing," he says. "I didn't necessarily have a huge interest in plant science before then, but it defined my career. It was a really exciting time in that lab - they were making some major discoveries."

Fuelled by this excitement, Dr Oldroyd went on to do a PhD in the same lab and then a postdoctorate at Stanford University.

"During that period there was a huge amount of funding being injected into science and those big research institutions were getting a lot of money. It all felt so dynamic," he recalls.

But he argues that the tide has turned and the UK is now a better place to be.

To everyone's surprise, Dr Oldroyd turned down some impressive job offers in the US to come to Norwich. John Innes lured him with "a very competitive offer", and he decided that despite the stereotypes it would be easier for him to get funding for his research in the UK.

"I think people don't really see how things are in the US," he says. "Under the current Administration, the success rate for National Science Foundation grants has dropped to between 7 and 9 per cent. And morale among scientists is seriously low."

Dr Oldroyd, 34, is thriving in this country. He holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit award and a five-year David Phillips fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Last month, his team hit the headlines with a major breakthrough published in the journal Nature . The paper explains how peas and beans capture nitrogen, the fuel for plant growth, in tiny nodules on their roots.

"It highlights the possibility that we might be able to transfer the whole process into non-legumes," Dr Oldroyd explains excitedly. "If we could get there, there would be potential for massive application. Farmers would no longer have to rely on expensive inorganic fertilisers."

Dr Oldroyd says that he was growing frustrated with bench science and was ready to move on to managing a team. But this has, nevertheless, been a steep learning curve for him. "One minute you are just responsible for your own work and controlling your own destiny, then suddenly you are running a science group and your research is being done by other people," he explains. "My job is now about managing people and raising money."

But while he is passionate about his work, Dr Oldroyd has one golden rule. "I never work weekends," he says firmly. "That is sacrosanct to me. I work a 50 or 60-hour week but I need my time at the end of the week to switch off or I can't function properly."

He recalls with horror a conversation he had about holidays in the US. "I was negotiating a job offer with one head of department who said: 'Your vacation time is probably about two or three weeks - but no one takes it off.' That was a deal breaker," he says.

"Two or three weeks isn't enough anyway - but then to be made to feel guilty about taking it! I want to be successful, but I don't believe that should be at any price."

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