No I didn’t. I first wanted to be an astronaut, then I thought that was probably unrealistic and I wanted to be a pilot – then I realised a pilot is really a glorified bus driver so it’s probably a bit boring after a while… It wasn’t until after I got to university that I started to think about being a scientist.
So was it a fascination with space and aviation that made you want to be a physicist?
Well, looking back, I can’t really remember. I had considered aeronautical engineering so obviously there was a trace of fascination with aviation. But, I thought that engineering is a bit vocational and physics kind of left lots of doors open.
What got you interested in biophysics?
In the final year [of my physics degree] I did two courses orientated towards biophysics (the application of physics in biology), so things like structural biology, but also electrophysiology (measuring electric currents in nerve cells) and the physical basis of colour vision. And having decided that, yes, I would like to do a PhD, those were the areas that interested me most because there was a link to human beings and health.
While there are many interesting areas of physics, many are abstract. I always felt that I would like to do something that would be easy enough to explain to someone at a party, so, in the end I did one on the mechanisms of general anaesthesia.
And your research at the moment, what are you looking into?
I’m a structural biologist. I figure out what molecules look like using a technique called X-ray crystallography. We look at, proteins and nucleic acids like DNA and RNA, which are too small to see even with microscopes. Crystallography gives us a tool for revealing the 3D structure of these molecules.
The particular types of molecule that I’m interested in are ones that have a prominent role in virus infections. I’m interested in a very particular class of viruses: small, single stranded RNA viruses. There are two groups that we work on primarily. One is the foot-and-mouth disease virus, an important pathogen of agricultural livestock. The other is a norovirus, the winter vomiting bug.
What is it about your work, at the moment, which most excites you?
Well, one thing that has struck me as quite a privilege is that you can get remunerated for exploring the natural world and that there are so many things as yet uncovered. That was one of the appeals of the life sciences rather than physics: they are much younger sciences and it seemed there was more scope for finding out something important compared to physics which is older – a lot of the good bits have already been done.
There’s a great thrill on those occasions (they don’t necessarily happen too often) when you discover or see something for the first time. Our particular type of work is generally about discovery. Every now and then we are in the position that we have solved a new structure and we can gather round the computer screen and see it. It’s a bit like conquering Everest or getting to the South Pole – I wouldn’t necessarily put it on a par with those achievements but it is a similar type of experience.
We are explorers of a molecular landscape and every now and then we come across something that no human has seen before, and that’s quite a thing.
IMAGE: sc63, flickr