Favourite Thing: This is a difficult question because I really enjoy the wide variety of activities involved with being a scientist. I enjoy exploring new research ideas and data, I get a real buzz out of the sense of discovery. I also love travelling and meeting with collaborators and talking about science. Also, many of the people I work with are my closest friends, so spending all day with them and working with them is great fun. It often doesn’t feel like work at all!
Grangefield School, 1991-1996. Bede College, 1996-1998
University of Sheffield, Biomedical Science, 1998-2002. University of Edinburgh, PhD in Statistical Genetics, 2003-2006.
Univeristy of Oxford, 2007-2009. Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, 2009-present.
Area of Research:
Autoimmune disease genetics and statistical genetics
Find out more:
Me and my work
I use computers to try and identify regions of the genome that increase risk of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, type 1 diabetes and celiac disease.
I was always interested in science at school, I liked coming up with ideas and thinking of ways to test them. When I got to University I quickly realised that I didn’t actually enjoy working in laboratories, I found working to the protocols quite restricting (and I wasn’t very good at it). I had always enjoyed working on computers and so I took a 1 year course in statistical genetics and found that this allowed me to perfectly combine my enjoyment of biology with my love for computing. And I haven’t really looked back since!
My Typical Day
My typical day goes something like: bus to work, tea, read and reply to emails, chat with teammates about our projects, research, lunch, seminar, telephone chats with collaborators, tea, research, bus home.
The typical day is quite varied but my favourite bits are chatting with colleagues about science and sitting in front of my computer doing research. These days, I don’t always get the time I would like to spend doing my own research. However, when deadlines are approaching I often clear my calendar of other things and spend 3-4 days doing nothing but research – those are good days!
Genome sequencing and my research
By comparing the genomes of people with Crohn’s disease to those from people without Crohn’s we try to identify the small genetic changes that can lead to the disease.
The genome is very big, it contains over 3 billion units (or base-pairs) which is about equivalent to half the number of people currently living on the planet! If you want to store a single genome sequence on a computer you will need about 90 gigabytes (Gb) of disk space to do this (my macbook has a 16oGb harddisk so I can’t even fit two whole genome sequences on my laptop). When we do our experiments we typically compare the genomes of, say, 2000 Crohn’s disease patients to the genomes of 2000 people without Crohn’s disease. This is twelve trillion base-pairs and 360,000 gigabytes (or 360 terabytes) of disk space! As you can imagine, we need very powerful computers to analyse and store all this information (and we have one of the biggest super-computers in Europe at the Sanger Institute).
I develop computer programs to make the analysis of this large amount of data easier. I then use these programs (and ones developed by others) to try and pick out the relatively few regions of the genome that differ between people who have Crohn’s disease and those that don’t. Of the 3 billion base-pairs in the genome there are probably only around one thousand that have a reasonable effect on Crohn’s disease risk (that’s 0.0003%). It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack – but that’s what makes it fun (and very exciting when you find one)! We hope that by find these genomic regions and working out how they increase disease risk we can devise new treatments and preventative therapies.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
enthusiastic, friendly, lucky
What music do you have on your iPod?
It’s very varied: from Beethoven to Beyonce and The Kinks to Katy Perry (and most things in between)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Travelling – I lived in Australia for 2 years and have been to various places in Europe, North and Central America and Asia.
What do you like to do away from work?
I’m a big sports fan. Football, cricket, tennis, you name it, I watch it (and attempt to play it). I also love travelling, listening to music, reading and playing on my xbox.
What did you want to be after you left school?
I really didn’t know. I enjoyed biology so studied that at University, but not with a specific career in mind at the time.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yes, I was constantly being told off for talking too much!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I have been involved in projects that have identified 150 genomic regions that underlie susceptibility to different autoimmune disease. Like most scientists though, I secretly hope me greatest acheivment is still ahead of me.
Tell us a joke.
What’s brown and sticky?……………………..a stick!