Favourite Thing: working with other people to discover new things
Sandylands Primary School (1975-80), Lancaster Royal Grammar School (1980-87), Imperial College, University of London (1987-90)
BSc 2.1 Hons, PhD
Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Cambridge University, Durham University
Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology
I am a scientist asking why and how parasitic infections affect hundreds of millions of people – mainly children – living in the tropics.
I call myself an epidemiologist because I am interested in diseases of human populations. Epidemiology is abranch of medicine that seeks to identify risk factors for disease, as well as the effects of treatment. My work is focused on populations rather than individuals.
I work for Durham University at the Queen’s Campus in Thornaby. I am a Senior Lecturer, which means I have been promoted from being a Lecturer, but I am not yet a Professor. I am therefore a mid-career scientist.
The campus was opened by the Queen about 20 years ago. My office is in the Wolfson Building – so called after the Wolfson Foundation which donated money to the University about 15 years ago to help bring people studying different subjects together in the same place.
The building where I work overlooks the Tees river, close to a white water rafting course and the Tees Barrage. If I walk down the river bank during the day I can sometimes see seals waiting for fish to come through the barrage. I can also see from my building the largest outdoor climbing frame in Europe – called the Airtrail, and the Water Sports centre where Olympic Gold Medal winner Kat Copeland trained before the 2012 Olympics.
I have never been white water rafting. I have never been up the climbing frame, nor rowed a boat on the river.
This is not because I am scared of any of these things (I have rowed a boat, done white water stuff and climbed things before). It is because my day is full of other activities and I just don’t have the time. Honest.
My office is also near the world-famous Infinity bridge, so named because together with its reflection it resembles an infinity symbol
I live with my family (wife and 2 children) in Stockton on Tees, which is famous for being the town where the friction match was invented. It is also famous for having the widest high street in the country and it has won the Britain in Bloom competition more times than I can remember. Perhaps it is most famous of all for being the terminus of the first ever passenger steam train journey which involved Stephenson’s Locomotion No1 setting off from Darlington on the morning of 27th September, 1825 before arriving in Stockton several hours later loaded with coal and passengers.
I am an epidemiologist interested in the challenges of removing parasitic infections that harm vulnerable populations
Part of my job involves teaching medical students about our immune systems. We have an immune system in our bodies mainly to combat parasites and other infections. Our immune systems evolved over many thousands of years, but so have the parasites. Some parasites have actually co-evolved with their hosts – trying to find ways through each others defences (and sometimes even finding ways to tolerate each other). Across the world, almost every organism can be infected by another organism. Even parasites have parasites.
Part of my job involves writing grant applications so that we can get money to do some research.
Epidemiology is very flexible in terms of its scope of work. As an epidemiologist I can work across many different disciplines, from ecology to molecular biology. One of my main interests is how parasite transmission in human communities is affected by environmental change. For example, as the climate changes due to human activities, the soil and water that contains the eggs or larvae of parasites and their vectors (such as mosquitoes) will alter in terms of characteristics such as temperature, Ph and electrical conductivity. These changes can have a massive impact on parasite ecology, which in turn changes the epidemiology as some populations may become more or less exposed to infection.
My research work covers a range of topics on parasites that have been given the term ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases‘ because they have been historically neglected in terms of research and control. Some of the parasites can be treated with medicines, but there are no vaccines so each treatment works only for a short time. Also, the medicines do not always work as intended, for reasons that are still unclear.
To do research I need to find some funds from an organisation that funds research. I spend some time thinking about each project idea and talk to other people about how we could work together. We then apply for funds and cross our fingers. If the grant is successful, we can start work on the project. The money we get pays for things like traveling to Africa to do field work, or paying research assistants, or for experimental equipment and computers. Some of my time each day is spent reading what other people are doing, by looking for publications on an electronic database. If I have recently completed some research I will also spend time writing up the results into a paper that I will then get published in a scientific journal. Another part of my job involves supervising students who are doing small projects as part of their University studies. I meet regularly with the students and offer them guidance and feedback until they have finished their projects and sent them to the examiners, who mark them out of 100. No one ever gets 100. I also supervise students who already have a degree and now want to work towards a PhD.
Another part of my job involves doing admin for the department. I am the chair of the board of examiners for one of the courses we run and it is my job to make sure that the student’s marks are correct and I sign the form that means they can be awarded a degree. I am also an examiner for the medical course and have to design new exam questions and mark exams three times a year.
My Typical Day
I write articles, analyse data, check twitter, supervise students, do some admin, check emails, write a grant application, have lunch then do everything again
I awake, or more usually I am awoken, pretty early. In the summer time I sometimes wake up before the birds start singing. A large mug of tea is essential at this point as I switch on the computer to check who has emailed me overnight, replied to a Tweet, or read one of my articles. Once I get to the office I switch on the computer and continue where I left off the previous day. I might be in the middle of some data analysis, or writing a paper, or writing an article, or doing some administration work, or preparing a grant application. Sometimes I have to get up early to catch a plane or train to travel to a conference, or even a meeting overseas to discuss project ideas. Or I might just be driving that day up to Durham’s other campus, which is located in Durham City, for a meeting with students or colleagues from other departments.
Every day is a bit different, but there is some repetition each year as each new group of students goes through their studies. So on some days I will deliver one or more lectures that I taught the previous year. I sometimes attend or deliver a seminar and ask or answer questions about my work. I have quite a lot of meetings, sometimes in my office, or someone else’s office, or sometimes even in the canteen over a coffee (preferably with cake, or at least chocolate biscuits).
What I'd do with the money
Hit the road with a suitcase full of pickled parasites in sealed jars.
There is nothing quite like the sight of a 30 foot tapeworm, especially when it is accompanied by a story that will make you GASP with amazement /disgust / respect. What about looking down the mouth of a parasite that can live in your gut and drink your blood for TEN YEARS without you knowing anything about it?
If I win, I will bring several different parasites (rendered harmless, don’t worry) to a few LUCKY schools and let you stare in awe at the real thing in 3 dimensions. If selected, you will (quite possibly) be the envy of every other school in the town/district/borough/unitary authority/county (delete as appropriate) as this type of opportunity is not at all very common.
Not only will I display the beasts at a safe distance, but I ‘ll also tell several COMPLETELY TRUE stories of how parasites cause some animals to turn into ZOMBIES, or how they they force animal hosts to behave in bizarre ways – like the parasite that makes infected mice quite literally rub up against cats!
I hope by doing this I will open your eyes to the fascinating world of parasitology and maybe inspire some of you to take a further interest. Britain needs parasitologists. There aren’t enough parasitologists to answer all the questions that need answering.
Just the very prospect of learning about parasites might be enough for you to seek out further information. If so, I suggest you start with a book called ‘Parasite Rex’ by Carl Zimmer.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
enthusiastic, collaborative, humanist
Who is your favourite singer or band?
It changes regularly, but generally not modern chart material
What's your favourite food?
Rhubarb and Custard
What is the most fun thing you've done?
i get a big buzz out of travelling to new places, discovering new things
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
my biology teacher, Mr Jim Ditchburn
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
film director or similar
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
establish a colossal nature reserve, preserve the tropics, watch England at Twickenam
Tell us a joke.
Slept like a log last night. Woke up in the fireplace.
Many communities in Africa are vulnerable to parasitic infections because the soil and water are the right temperature to support the eggs of the parasites themselves and the eggs of the vectors such as mosquitoes. To understand how the environment affects transmission requires fieldwork to collect information about the environment. I have done quite a lot of fieldwork during my career, mainly in rural communities of East Africa. Here is a picture from a community where I did some work in the Rift Valley in Uganda
In this picture some colleagues are looking for mosquito larvae in a river in Kenya
A lot of my work is very collaborative. Here is a group photo of collaborators on a project that investigated the link between climate change and potential change in the transmission of parasitic infections in East Africa. In this picture are climatologists, mathematical modellers, historians, geo-informaticians, epidemiologists, PhD students, administrative assistants, geographers