Robert Lees

Thanks for everyone who voted for me, it was great to chat to you all - hope to see you tomorrow in the final live chat!

Favourite Thing: Going on a microscope to look at TINY, living cells as they move, grow and change in real time!



Portway School, Andover (1996-2003), Harrow Way Community School, Andover (2003-2008), Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke (2008-2010), University of Birmingham (2010-2014), University of Bristol (2014-2018)


14 GCSEs (don’t think you have to do this many, I did a language after school and a lighting/sound course because I was interested in them, do what you’re interested in!), 3 A-levels (Biology, Chemistry and Maths), Masters in Science (M.Sci. Biochemistry)

Work History:

Technical Assistant at the University of Birmingham (I got to play with colourful, moving lights, speakers and other expensive things! If you get the chance, give it a go, it’s fun); Fruit picker at Leckford Orchard, Stockbridge (that’s right, I picked fruit… apples and pears to be exact)

Current Job:

PhD Student


University of Bristol, supported by the Wellcome Trust

Me and my work

I look at the living brains/brain cells of mice using cool tools, such as laser microscopes, with the aim to understand how human brains work – I guess you could say I’m a zombie-scientist, except I don’t eat the brains!

I am a PhD student at the University of Bristol and I work with lots of other scientists in my university and around the world. We try to understand how our cells (the Lego blocks of you and me) do what they do! I like to look at neurons (long, branching cells that look like roots from a tree), which most of your brain is made from. Here is an animation showing how neurons talk to each other in the brain (ignore the ‘STEP’ bit).


The shape of a neuron

Neurons connect to each other like a big, tangled mess of spaghetti and this makes it really hard to look at (the spaghetti strands are also 1000x smaller than the spaghetti we eat). We can use a microscope to look at things that are VERY small, millions of times smaller than the width of a single hair! I use a microscope to look at neurons to find out what is happening as they connect to each other while on a glass dish or in a living mouse.

All of the scientists around the world who are working on this (including me!) share results and ideas with each other. This helps to find out what to do next and builds an idea of what we think is happening in our brains.

In my spare time I play and coach dodgeball, play video games and listen/dance to music! I also like to share science with the public and people like you.


Dodgeball, represent.

Feel free to ask me about any of this and more!

My Typical Day

The first thing I always do is to make sure the cells are fed, clean and not dying (a bit like having a pet), then I do some experiments (make changes to the cells) and finally look at results from past experiments (pictures and videos from the microscope).

The great thing about being a PhD student is that you run on your own time, you don’t HAVE to be in early unless there is something important to do. It’s great! I just work a bit later if I want to stay in bed in the morning.


The many stairs to my office!

Getting to my office means walking up many stairs to the top floor, once I catch my breath I head to the lab to check my neurons are alive and well-fed. They need to be looked after because they are not used to being in a glass dish, it would be like somebody taking me and you and trying to make us live on another planet with no oxygen or food, we’d need special things to help us survive and it would be very difficult to keep us going!


Loads of dishes of neurons in the incubator, being kept happy.

Next come experiments, I might be: putting extra stuff in neurons to mark things I want to look at with glowing tags; freezing neurons in time so I can look at everything while it is still; putting living neurons on the microscope to observe the glowing tags or even looking in to the brains of LIVING mice (using a little glass window) to see what is happening! This has to be the best part of the day, it really is amazing to watch stuff move around in a brain. Here is a video of mitochondria moving around in a neuron that I took last year. Mitochondria are essential for providing energy to our cells, and I love them!


A multiphoton microscope

In any time in between I would meet up with my boss to talk about my plans, check emails, talk to labmates about problems and go around the other labs to see what my friends are up to (always fun and interesting!). Finally, you would find me looking at the pictures and videos I take on the microscope and trying to work out what they mean for our ideas about how the brain works.

On average I might spend 50% of my time in the lab and 50% at my computer, but it can change from day to day.

What I'd do with the money

Take cool science to local schools and STEM clubs!

If I won I would love to be able to do cool biological/biomedical experiments with children in local schools in the Southwest, to show how interesting this area of science is. When I was younger I only remember burning chemicals and making circuits in school, there was a huge hole where my current interests lie, and I want to change that.

As a STEM ambassador (I do outreach with younger people and the public) I have access to a variety of STEM clubs (science clubs, often run after school) in the area and I’m looking to help support some of these clubs with new activities – such as microbiology with glowing bacteria!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Sociable, fun, generous

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What's your favourite food?

Pepperoni pizza

What is the most fun thing you've done?

It’s hard to choose, it would have to be some form of travelling. Probably going on a cruise down the river Nile and seeing all of the great Egyptian monuments and learning about their history, I’ve always been fascinated by them!

What did you want to be after you left school?

Either an accountant or a graphic designer

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Yes, in Primary school I used to crawl around behind the desks so the teacher couldn’t see me! Oh, how I’ve changed.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Mathematics, it was really down to the great teacher I had, it wasn’t until I left school and went to college that I found out I loved chemistry and biology so much.

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

Used an electron microscope to look at the brain at the nanometer (1,000,000x smaller than a millimetre) scale!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

When I was younger somebody told me there weren’t enough scientists in the UK, this has always stuck in my mind. At college I loved understanding how cells worked and my tutor suggested I do biochemistry and the rest is history!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I’d probably be a lighting technician/designer for a band or festival, travelling around the world setting up cool light shows.

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

Teleportation (so I could see if there is life elsewhere in the universe), live forever (to be able to try everything once), not have to eat to survive (can still eat to taste things, but it’s not essential!)

Tell us a joke.

What did one brain cell say to the other? – I think neuron to something.

Other stuff

Work photos:


My desk at work – tidy as usual…


This is where we keep all the cells happy, incubators on the left, hoods on the right (that’s where we do stuff to the cells)


Where we keep our microscopes (everything is black because lasers are dangerous and we don’t want them reflecting on to us if they get out of their cases)


If I do stay late, I get a great view from work on the way home – hello, Bristol!


A photo of most of us from the lab, they’d kill me if they knew I put it up here