up early this morning and ready for a webchat
My family travelled a lot when I was young, so I went to 8 different schools around Britain and Africa between ’82 and ’95.
I studied for a degree in biochemistry at Bath University (’95-’99), then a PhD in genetics at Edinburgh University (’99-’03).
When I was a student I worked as a barman (hence my favorite joke, below). Then I moved to the USA and worked at a small company, Onyx, in San Francisco then a research institute in San Diego.
I work in an area called “neuro-genetics”, which means I study genes that are involved in making the brain work.
Mouse and Zebrafish Genetics.
Favourite thing to do in my job: I enjoy travelling around the world to speak to people about my research, learning about the science others do, and finding ways to work together.
I’m a neurobiologist who looks into genes that influence behaviour, primarily through the sense of smell.
I lead a small team of scientists (Gabi, Elizabeth, Laura and Maria) who are all interested in how genes affect behaviour. We focus on a special type of behaviour called “instinct“. These tend to be social in nature and occur unconsciously and without much learning. Examples of the instincts we study are:
Sexual behaviour, what causes males and females to mate with each other?
Dominance behaviour, what causes males to fight with each other?
Suckling behaviour, how do newborn babies know how and where to find milk from their mother’s breast?
“Fight or flight” behaviour, how does fear work and why are we afraid of some things but not others?
Its very difficult to study these instincts in humans, so instead we tend to watch (and make videos) of mice interacting. We then work out what the signals are that cause each behaviour, and also what genes are involved in making the mice respond to these signals. A lot of mouse instincts are caused by “pheromones” – which are special chemical odours (smells) that animals use to communicate with each other. So we focus on the noses of mice, to try and find out how these smells go from the nose to the brain, and then from the brain to cause the behaviour. It turns out that many mouse pheromones are found in pee (which is pretty gross), so we also look for the genes that make pheromones or release them into the bladder.
We don’t yet know for sure whether humans have pheromones. (If we do, they are probably not found in our pee!) but even if we don’t – we are learning a lot about the genes that make our own instincts work by studying instincts in mice. For example, the part of the mouse brain that is most active when mice detect cat pheromones is also active in humans that are really frightened. And the part of the brain that processes sex pheromones in mice, is also very active in humans when they have sex. We hope to learn how these natural behaviours work from the genes involved, so then we can find out why the go wrong in some behavioural disorders (like schizophrenia or phobias)
Other parts of our work involve studying the differences between males and females in their noses or brains and trying to find the genes that control the differences. For example, one question we are currently trying to answer is: do boys smell things the same way as girls do? This is actually a really difficult problem to solve!
Finally, because we spend a lot of time watching mice socialize with each other, my team have learned a lot about recognizing when they are stressed or unhappy. So we also do research into ways to keep them as happy as possible (for example, we know that mice actually like dirty cages more than clean ones, so we don’t clean them out as often as we used to). We consider this a very important part of our work, because the priviledge of working with these amazing animals comes with an ethical responsibility towards them.
This weird looking structure is the part of a mouse’s nose that detects pheromones. Its called the vomeronasal organ (or VNO). The white crescent is where he pheromones enter and the blue crescent are the nerves that send the signals to the brain.
My Typical Day
Meet with my lab members to help them plan or interpret their experiments, maybe write a bit of a report, read up on some recent research and -if I’m lucky- I’ll squeeze in an experiment or two of my own. I’ll catch up on emails just before I go home. In the evening I’ll go for a run (which doubles a good thinking time – an important part of every scientist’s day!)
I do spend quite a lot of time helping the members of my lab with their work, which is a really rewarding part of the job. But the great thing about being a research scientist is that no two days are ever the same.
For example, some days I just read papers to learn more about the exciting research my friends are doing, or maybe talk to my colleagues in Brazil or the USA, via Skype, to discuss an experiment we are working on together.
Other days I may spend an afternoon timing how long it takes mice find a square of chocolate hidden in their cage (that is a great test to find out how well they can smell – they usually find it really quickly!)
Some days I may spend a lot of time at my computer drinking coffee and analyzing some genes from different mice, to see if I can spot differences that might explain their behaviour. A lot of genome research is computer based now so it really helps if you have computer skills as well as laboratory skills.
I even spent a day, once, making a YouTube video with come colleagues about our work discovering why mice are afraid of cats. It was a lot of fun, even though we are clearly not cut out for a media career!
What I'd do with the prize money
I study the largest known family of genes (some genomes contain over a thousand copies, all slightly different). Genome sequencing is critical, because without it we would not be able to tell the genes apart.
The genes I study are called olfactory receptors (ORs) and vomeronasal receptors (VRs) – these are the genes that permit you to smell. If you add them all together, most mammals have around 1200 in their genome. You and I have a lot less, around 400, which is why we are not as good at smelling things as mice, rats and dogs (and why we probably don’t have pheromones). These receptors are all very similar to one another. For this reason it has been very difficult (and very expensive!) to sequence them, which means we know very little about how they work. However, recently a revolutionary new way to sequence genomes has been developed.
I have been using this method to study the ORs and VRs of different mice – mainly to see whether males and females turn on the same (or different) genes in their nose. We know that males and females behave differently when they sniff the same pheromones, so we thought that this might be because they turn different VR genes on. This idea is what we call a “hypothesis“. So we did a sequncing experiment to test this, and the result is in the picture below.
It shows about 240 different VR genes along the horizontal (x) axis, and the amount each is turned on in male mice (blue) and female mice (red) along the vertical (y) axis. As you can see its almost an exact mirror image, which means animals of both sex pretty much turn on the same amount for each gene, though the genes themselves differ by quite a lot. This experiment told us our original hypothesis was wrong, and the differences between male and female behaviour is not due to differences in the VR genes they turn on.
Proving yourself “wrong” is an important part of the scientific method, so we were not too disappointed. Besides, we now have a new idea about how the differences occur, and we have recently got some more evidence from genome sequencing that suggests we might be right this time!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Unashamed. Science. Geek.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
A couple of years ago I spent a few days designing and then building a little machine to milk a mouse. It worked brilliantly – I managed to collect about a tablespoon of (very creamy) milk. I should point out I didn’t do this for fun, I needed the milk to identify what chemical attracts babies to the smell of their mother’s milk.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Occasionally, for talking back to teachers. However we used to get caned for misbehaving, so I tried to avoid that as much as possible.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The last thing I listened to on my iPod was a great album by Kitty, Daisy & Lewis. When I run, I listen to AC/DC, Johnny Cash or Lemon Jelly.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
White-water rafting in the Costa Rican jungle, dodging iguanas and sloths in the overhanging trees!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I enjoying running, any distance up to half-marathons. I also like watching sport, particularly football.
Tell us a joke.
Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, “Olive or twist?”