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Ailsa Powell

In answering this http://ias.im/44.1357 I did some experiments - results are in the comments section. Got a massive amount of lab work on today, but I will answer your questions - be patient :)

My CV

School:

I went to Tuxford Comprehensive in Nottinghamshire from 1988 to 1995, studying both my GCSEs and A-levels there.

University:

I did my Bachelors degree in Biochemistry with Medical Biochemistry at Cardiff University and then moved across the River Severn to the University of Bristol to do my Ph.D in Biochemistry.

Work History:

Following my Ph.D I took the opportunity to travel and moved to Charleston, South Carolina in the USA to work as a research scientist. I spent my time there looking at the reasons behind antibiotic resistance.

Employer:

After nearly 5 years in the USA I decided it was time to come back to the UK and have been working in the Biochemistry Department of the University of Oxford since.

Current Job:

The work I do here in Oxford is looking at new ways of treating Malaria. The bugs that cause Malaria are getting used to the medicines that treat the disease, so it’s always important to be looking for new ways to kill the bugs.

Me and my work

I’m a biochemist and I look at new ways of treating Malaria. I use biochemistry and biophysics to do this and a technique called X-ray crystallography

I’m a biochemist, but the branch of biochemistry I work in is structural biology.  I want to look at the structure of proteins to find out more about how they work and sometimes how to stop them working.  The part of biochemistry I have always found interesting is how diseases can be treated and how the medicines we take work.  

Proteins in our bodies and in all living things can be thought of as little machines and communication pathways that allow us to to all the things we do.  I’m interested in the proteins in bugs (bacteria and parasites) that can make us sick.  The problems I try to solve have varied from how antibiotics work against bacterial infections (like tonsillitis) to my current work on looking for new ways of treating Malaria (a parasitic infection).  If a protein is vital in keeping a bug alive it can be used as a target for medicines that will stop the protein doing it’s job and therefore kill the bug and give your own immune system the help it needs to make you better.  

So how do I do this?  Well I want to look at the structure of these protein targets to find out about the important part in making it work (it’s active site).  Normal microscopes aren’t good enough to look at proteins in this level of detail – I need to know where all the individual atoms are – so I use X-rays which are powerful enough to get the right level of detail.  I also get to use some pretty fancy machinery to solve these protein structures including the Diamond Light Source – a vast machine that provides the high intensity x-rays you need to look at protein structure http://www.diamond.ac.uk/Home/About/Films/applications.html.   Once I know the structure of the protein I’m interested in, I can see what shape chemical is needed to block it’s active site and the beginnings of a cycle to develop a new medicine has started.  I work with chemists who will make the new medicines and with parasitologists and cell biologists who can work out it the new medicines work to kill the Malaria parasite.  All the information we discover will gradually improve our understanding of the protein target and the medicines we are developing against it.

My Typical Day

Some playing about in the lab, some playing about on computers, sometimes some playing about on very expensive machines (http://www.esrf.eu/AboutUs), some teaching and of course a coffee break.

Generally no day is the same – there isn’t really a typical day!  Most days I will spend some of it in the lab making proteins or doing experiments with proteins.  I also spend some time most days at my computer checking for new literature in my area of research and looking at the proteins on my computer.  If have some data on the structure of my protein I will be sat at the computer building the atoms of the protein into the data I have collected, there are some pretty good computer programs that can do some of this for you, but it all needs to be checked by hand and sometimes your eyes are just that much better at positioning the atoms than the computer! 

I also work with a lot of other scientists in different labs around the world so I have to spend time writing reports and presentations so we can keep up to date on all aspects of the project.  We also have regular meetings and occasionally I go and work in their labs – this can be fun, I spend 5 weeks earlier this year working in Toronto, Canada.  I also travel to conferences to present my work.  In fact scientists get to travel quite a lot for work.

I also do some teaching at the university.  I take undergraduate tutorials on how to work with proteins.  And I teach graduate students (those studying for an M.Sc or Ph.D) about X-ray crystallography (which is the technique I use to solve protein structures).  So some days I need to do preparation for these tutorials.

And of course a few coffee breaks and chats with people around the lab  :).  

What I'd do with the money

I’d like to spend some of the money to come and visit you and chat more about science. I would also like to donate the rest of the money to one of the outreach programs at Oxford University.

I’m hoping that the ‘I’m a Scientist’ experience will inspire you to ask more questions about science, the world around you and about what scientists do to try and find some of the answers.  I think it would be great to meet some students and teachers who’ve taken part in this activity so we can continue conversations about science and for you to ask more about the type of work I do in Biochemistry and what going to university and staying on as an academic researcher is all about.  

In donating the rest of the money to an Oxford University outreach program I would be to helping to support the work the college and university departments do in encouraging pupils from state schools to apply to the University.  You would think from reading the press that this work does not happen.  Departments and colleges run summer schools and courses specifically aimed at state school pupils to show them more about life at Oxford University and to give tasters of the courses (even involving sample lectures and tutorials).  A lot of academic staff put a lot of effort into these and in addition to the time I already give, I would like to donate to one of the Biochemistry outreach programs so more pupils can attend and get a taster of a Biochemistry course.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Like a few of the other scientists in the zone, I’ve asked around my colleagues… tenacious/principled, inquisitive and organised.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

A surprisingly difficult question! I listen to a range of stuff, from bands like Radiohead, Beck and The Arcade Fire to 80’s collections (for singing along to in the car).

What is the most fun thing you've done?

One of the most exciting things I have done was trekking in the Himalayas a few years ago. In terms of pure excitement rafting down one of the best white water rivers in the Eastern USA is pretty hard to beat.

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

One serious wish first, I wish they would sort out university and research funding so all the people doing research and teaching can stop worrying about their jobs and focus on the more important things they do. Now the less serious: Teleportation as a means of travel, so I don’t have to waste any holiday time on a plane and boringly a euro millions win certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What did you want to be after you left school?

It’s going to sound dull, but I wanted to work in scientific research. I just really loved tinkering and doing experiments in the labs at school.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Once or twice ;) I did manage to get myself banned from school trips due to misbehaviour, but the teachers relented and removed the ban.

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

Getting my first major scientific result during my Ph.D. Everyone else had left work and I went home that evening knowing I was the only person in the world who knew what I’d managed to do.

Tell us a joke.

I’m really bad at remembering jokes, does this happen to other people?