is in the final -- eep! Exciting! Keep asking me hard questions!
Favourite Thing: Come up with an idea. Come up with an experiment to test the idea. Do the experiment. Find out that your idea is 100% wrong. Alter your idea. Repeat your experiment. Eventually, the two will be the same — and then you’ve found truth!
GCSEs & A-Levels (finished in 2007) at Philip Morant, a comprehensive school in Colchester. First degree: Physics, at Oxford. Currently studying for a PhD at Oxford.
Master’s degree in physics, focussing on particle physics and biological physics (MPhys Hons Oxon); computing qualifications, GCSEs, 4 A-levels, and music grades!
At the University of Oxford, researching computational biology, super-resolution microscopy and now biomedical physics. I’m also employed by the university to teach maths and stats to undergraduate biochemists, and biological physics and computing to physicists — as well as to fix computers! In the real world, I’ve had jobs fixing computers, designing things with computers, managing websites, and generally being a bit of a nerd.
I’m a PhD student, trying to spot cancer early through a technique complementary to MRI.
Departments of Physics, Physiology Anatomy & Genetics, Radiation Oncology Biology and the Doctoral Training Centre, University of Oxford
Me and my work
I use quantum mechanics to (try and) spot cancers in the brain before doctors can!
I’m a PhD student who uses a really cool nuclear physics technique called Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation to try and spot brain cancer.
The technique works by making a chemical (called pyruvate) visible to an MRI scanner, and it turns out that what happens to that chemical is different in cancer cells to ordinary cells. Because of the way MRI works, I’m able to follow that chemical in five dimensions — three in space, time, and “chemical space”, i.e. what it’s been turned into by the body. This chemical, pyruvate is transformed into another substance called lactic acid, which, incidentally, is what’s responsible for making stitches painful during exercise (as well as yoghurt sour, and cancers able to invade nearby cells).
In cancer cells, the amount of lactic acid produced is far greater than that in healthy cells, and it’s the focus of my research to try and use this difference to spot cancer early, in difficult and aggressive forms of cancer in the brain where early treatment is key to helping patients survive.
The actual nuclear physics process itself is quite exciting — it involves introducing hot (200 ºC) liquids at around 10x atmospheric pressure being introduced to very, very cold solids at around -272 ºC to form (quickly, and in essentially a controlled explosion) a 37 ºC pyruvate-containing liquid that is then injected into someone (or something) inside an MRI scanner. With luck, I’ll be able to image the produced lactate in cancers before you can ordinarily see the tumours on a clinical scan.
My Typical Day
There is no typical day! Run MRI scans in the morning, analyse data in the afternoons.
There’s no such thing as a typical day in science!
To expand a bit on what I mean, some of my experiments run for many weeks, where I’ll be using the MRI scanner from about 5 am to lunchtime three or four days a week for one or two months. In the afternoon I’ll process the data, and try to make sense of what I’m seeing. Other days I’ll try and work out how to better program the scanner — this is quite a complicated process, where I’ll have to do maths and run simulations on my computer in the office, before moving on to programming instructions for what I want the scanner to do. I’ll then have to spend some time — usually quite a lot of time — trying to install those instructions on the scanner, and running lots of (relatively boring) calibration experiments on tubes of water/vegetable oil/acetone/100%-isotopically-pure-13C-enriched-urea-which-costs-about-£300-per-ml-for-what-is-essentially-wee-wee. Sometimes I can run these sorts of experiments over the weekend or overnight (and I might have to come in to massage them). I also sometimes do some more traditional ‘wet-lab’ based laboratory work, which involves a lot of moving tiny quantities of colourless liquids into tiny plastic phials, before understanding what their contents are. I also get to do quite a lot of “making stuff”, in engineering workshops. So, for instance, next week I’m going to spend four days precision engineering pieces of plastic to make a structure for use in a scanner.
Of course, like any job, there are days where you spend the whole day the desk doing paperwork — but in my case, that’s like to be writing talks, marking work for the classes I teach (mathematics, computing and biological physics), writing papers or applying for grants — or planning experiments — rather than something truly boring!
What I'd do with the money
Run a day of science activities for all, and try to build a levitating trainset
I’d enlist the help of one of my colleagues in Physics, Dr Sian Owen, who’s physics’s full-time outreach officer. It’s her job to put on fun events for everyone to promote physics as a subject — and I’d use it to sponsor a big day of family-friendly science activities. We’ve got lots of kit to talk about lots of different things that are really cool — tons of liquid nitrogen and (somewhere, I think) a partly-working levitating trainset — so I’d like to fix the train and put on a big event where everyone can come and learn things while seeing some seriously cool kit!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Nice but nerdy!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I really have a broad taste in music — everything from the 1200s on. I really like contemporary choral music — Eric Whitacre and friends — music around the turn of the last century (Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and friends) and, in modern times, the Canadian rock group Barenaked Ladies, and the Finish symphonic power metal band Nightwish!
What's your favourite food?
I’m vegetarian, and I basically love anything with a lot of cheese!
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Conducted a choir of about two hundred people!
What did you want to be after you left school?
A scientist! To be fair, I didn’t really know what kind — there are lots of good problems to work on!
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yes — I nearly got expelled for ‘hacking’ into my school’s wireless network. I was also bullied a lot and had quite a hard time of it.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Maths, music and chemistry — though not ironically physics; I found the lessons a bit boring at times!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Played a game of chess with levitating pieces!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Much to my mother’s annoyance, I’ve never really grown out of asking the question ‘why’. That’s what science is all about really — why can’t I just fly; why do the stars shine, why do people die, and why do I go to the toilet. I just like answering the question ‘why’ a lot, and, if there’s nobody else out there to tell you the answer, you eventually end out working it out for yourself.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I’d probably be a professional musician — I really love singing that much!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1: I’d love to wish for infinite wishes, just to see what would happen. 2: I’d wish that we could get a small viable form of nuclear fusion working. This would provide us with a large amount of useful energy, and let us stop destroying our environment. 3: I’d wish that people were far less aggressive and better aware of how their emotions affect their judgement — I suspect that a lot of wars would be ended if that was the case!
Tell us a joke.
I was in Tesco’s the other day and saw a man and a woman walking along together wrapped up in a barcode blanket. Turns out they were an item.
My work takes place in many different locations — but I do a lot of early development here, in the Department of Physiology Anatomy & Genetics (right next to the department of Physics, conveniently). This is simply an accident of history — we’ve just got authorisation to start clinical trials, and all of that takes place in the John Radcliffe hospital (I don’t have any pics to hand, unfortunately). That being said, I’ve got a lot of cool pictures, starting with the most inane:
My desk! Note catalogues as monitor stand, a few textbooks, emergency toy, and vitally important mug. The computer itself is quite powerful (and runs linux); I do lots of computationally intensive things.
The office in which my desk sits is just one of a collected series of offices…
…in varying states of tidiness!
This is part of the ‘main lab’, the wet lab I mentioned earlier, where lots of people do lots of different biochemistry things, trying to understand (mostly) how the body uses the fuel that you eat. It’s a veritable gold-mine of science, with most anything you could ever want…
…at least in terms of commonly used chemicals!
Here we’re actually getting closer to my work: this is one of two research MRI scanners we have — it’s a very powerful magnet (the big white thing) with racks of electronics (white boxes, not all of which are shown). Its inner diameter is only 72 mm, so you’re unlikely to want to go inside it — but it’s very handy for testing out the imaging sequences I’m developing on smaller things (like the aforementioned tubes of substances, and fruit. Fruit’s good…).
This is where the magic happens: this device is called a ‘hyperpolariser’, and does the nuclear physics that I’m actually interested in. It’s a bit like two giant thermos flasks, one stacked inside the other, where the outside is at room temperature and the inside is at 1K. The tiny little white plastic tube visible in the centre (with the bung on the top) contains, at the end of the tube, a small sample of pyruvate that will eventually end up in the magnet round the corner.
As if one MRI scanner isn’t enough; here’s another: we’ve got an even more powerful (12 tesla as opposed to 7 tesla above — the Earth’s magnetic field is around 0.00003 tesla) magnet (big silver thing that’s half sunk into the floor) with a different racks of electronics and software (not shown). The inner diameter is even smaller, but it’s great for getting either beautiful pictures of small things or lots of information about the different substances contained in a sample. The big white thing with “Hypersense” written on it is an automated computer-controlled version of the hyperpolariser above — it’s produced by GE healthcare, and was a step to getting the technique in the clinic.
Finally, this is some very fresh, preliminary data showing the disappearance of pyruvate in a heart (big blob in the middle, surrounded by lungs which appear black) as it arrives in the heart, and is pumped away and metabolised over these three images. The colour overlay is the pyruvate intensity, with red high and blue low. I know it’s a bit odd to talk about brains earlier on before showing pictures of something completely different, but there’s a lot more blood in the heart, which means that you get to see a lot more signal after injection. This was just a proof of concept to show that my imaging sequence works — which it obviously does! Now, if only I can get this to work at high resolution in the brain, we’ll be able to spot cancers early enough to treat them…