Thank you for an amazing couple of weeks: students, scientists, and the I'm a Scientist Team :)
Primary Schooling (1995-2003, California, USA); Secondary Schooling (2003-2007, Ontario, Canada); Bachelor’s Degree: University of Liverpool (2009-2012, UK); Master’s & PhD Degrees: University of Glasgow (2012-2016, UK).
In secondary education, I have a typical North-American high school diploma, in which grades 11 and 12 are judged to be most important (like A-levels). In 11th grade, I took English, Ancient World History, World Religions, Computer Engineering, Maths, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry. In grade 12, I took English, Modern World History, Politics, Maths/Calculus, Biology and Chemistry. In higher education, I have a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Molecular Biology from the University of Liverpool, Master of Research (MRes) in Molecular Functions in Disease with Distinction from the University of Glasgow.
I have had a few gigs working on short projects in various labs. I have worked in a lab that was trying to figure out what different viruses look like so that we can prevent infections, and I have worked for a lab that made tiny Lego-like bricks with pipes in them to make chemical reactions easier (and fun!). Outside of labs I have worked at the World Museum Liverpool as a demonstrator in an exhibit called Inside DNA. I explained to people things like if you were to unravel the DNA in just one cell of your body, it would actually be 2 metres in length (longer than most people are tall). I also explained how half of the letters in your DNA are exactly the same as those in a banana! We are all half bananas.
I am a full-time PhD research student. This is both a ‘job’ and an incredible learning experience about not just bones, but life!
The University of Glasgow, supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Favourite thing to do in science The most thrilling thing for me is discovering something completely new, that no one has ever seen or known about before. It’s like being an explorer of a new and strange place, but instead of this place being some far away alien planet, it’s actually a very near and very small alien world! Being creative and making up ideas and experiments is also one of my favourite things. I get to be in charge of which questions I want to ask of the universe, and then I get to work hard to find out the answers to the universe’s secrets…. Oh yeah, I also like taking pretty pictures of bones and their cells!
Bone cells are in an epic battle for domination – with some cells making bone and other cells breaking it – and as a molecular osteoimmunologist, I look at which cells are winning, and why.
I am interested in the different types of cells that live in and around bone. Yes, there are many kinds of cells just for bone! Each cell type has an important bit of work to do, to help bones grow and stay healthy during your life.
Imagine you are shrunk down to the size of a cell in a bone….
There you will see the wobbly, blue-coloured osteoblasts, cells that ‘blast’ out protein, calcium and phosphorus – which all combine to form normal bone. The proteins look like a tangle of ropes, and the calcium and phosphate minerals fill in the gaps like cement, to give bone its strength. Osteoblasts are so happy to keep chugging out bone material that they can get buried alive in it!
Then you will find the spiky, purple-coloured osteoclasts, which gang up and fuse to combine their bone-breaking and acid-spewing abilities. Osteoclasts have an important job in helping give bones their ‘architecture’, shape and strength, but when left unchecked, they can cause bone-shattering mayhem!
Perfect balance of both, osteoblasts and osteoclasts, is absolutely necessary for healthy bones. In a healthy person, these cells take turns in doing their jobs: osteoblasts making crude bone, and osteoclasts shaping and landscaping that bone. Osteoblasts then come back and make more bone… and the cycle continues forever! In some diseases, such as osteoporosis (meaning ‘bone with holes’) osteoclasts start to win this epic tussle, causing weak bones that can easily break.
Cells are very tiny machines that are made up of billions of different chemicals. By looking at the inner ‘machinery’ of the osteoblasts and osteoclasts, I hope to put a spanner in the works when cells act up.
In the lab, I use mice to study how bone develops from birth to old age, in diseases, and how the bone cells behave each situation. I take bone cells out from bone, grow them in dishes and see if they look normal or unusual. I can then break open the cells and see if their chemical machinery is normal or unusual – I do this with a lot a high-tech equipment that can recognise cell chemicals! I also take lots of tiny X-ray pictures of tiny mouse bones.
Check out this cool animation about osteoclasts and osteoblasts!
My Typical Day
I come into the lab, feed some hungry cells by gently squirting red juice-like stuff on them, and then I use some high-tech machines that can recognise the molecules and chemicals the cells are making, and then I use giant computers to analyse and measure the density and strength of many mouse bones. I also have some lunch with lab mates. On some days there are meetings where we discuss ideas, plans and share our latest findings – these meetings usually provide jelly-filled donuts.
No day is ever the same. Everyday, I walk into the lab building feeling like I’m getting closer to solving a mystery. There are different challenges all of the time.
On a given day, I could be:
Making sure my bone cells are growing happily. Happy cells = happy me.
Taking the cells, freezing them in time (by adding a certain chemical), and then dyeing them to make them pretty (and so that I can see them under a microscope).
Putting cells under the microscope to count them using computer software, but sometimes I can just lose track of time as I stare at how cool they look.
Seeing how cells from different mice compare by counting them or measuring their colour. This is a scientific result!
I could be doing 3D X-ray scans of tiny bones from mice that are either young/old or healthy/diseased.
I could be collecting my results and making cool looking graphs that explain what I see – this is new knowledge!
I could be discussing ideas about cells and bones with other scientists and we could be planning what to do next.
Running 10 kilometres in mud. (Oh right, this is probably the weekend by now.)
What I'd do with the money
I would use the money to help enhance my museum workshop event, where I show people of all ages real bones from all kinds of animals that the museum has collected. I explain the cell processes and how evolution has shaped them.
I work with the museum in my University, the Hunterian, which has an amazing collection of bones and skeletons from all kinds of animals and humans. I use them to show people that bone is actually pretty darn cool – and that we would just be really wobbly blobs without it. I also tell them that animals as different as humans, dolphins and bats all share the same blueprints for their skeletons. Take for example, the pentadactyl limb. The five fingers in your hand aren’t just unique to humans, as animals such as frogs and bats have them too – albeit really long and thin ones with lots of skin between them – forming their ‘webbed feet’ and ‘wings’, respectively! This is because all of the bones in the skeleton also adapt and evolve as the animals evolve over millions of years to survive in their ever-changing ecosystems.
I also show the coloured bone cells with which I do the experiments. Other aspects include making comic animations of bone cells that you can colour-in yourself, and the use of high-end graphic animations.
I am hoping to use the prize money to a personal touch to this humble workshop and really make it cutting-edge. I have expertise in 3D-printing and will 3D-print a couple magnified models of the tiny mouse bones I work with, to help show people what a difference disease makes to bone. People have to really be able to see and feel the differences with their own eyes to get an idea of how bones can develops bumps and holes in diseases.
Have you ever held a 3D-printed, X-ray micro-tomographic model of an osteoarthritic mouse bone a hundred-times its normal size? It will be amazing.
Check out this link for more information!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, Determined, Creative
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Top 5 right now: R.E.M., Nada Surf, Wilco, Editors, Pixies
What's your favourite food?
Pizza or Indian food
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Surfing in Malibu Beach with my brother
What did you want to be after you left school?
I had always wanted to be an astronaut and go beyond the moon. And I still do!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I was a fairly well behaved student, but I do remember getting in a bit of trouble a couple of times.
What was your favourite subject at school?
It kept changing. I loved English, visual arts, history, and biology. I liked physics, chemistry and maths too.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
My current PhD project is so far the best thing I’ve done as a scientist.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I knew I loved science and wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut, when I was about 7 years old. But I realised around the age of 11 that I really like the biology of cells. By age 14 I was convinced I would do a degree in science. By age 22, I knew I wanted to be a full-time researcher.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If I couldn’t be a scientist, nor an astronaut, I would settle for being the President of the United States of America (or Prime Minister, too).
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. Travel to everywhere on the planet, 2. Have my own giant laboratory with the best equipment, 3. Live a happy life and meaningful life – leaving Earth a better place than I found it.
Tell us a joke.
I find jokes about bones rather… humerus.