Favourite Thing: Ask good questions – design experiment- perform it, then prove or disprove your initial hypothesis! Then, if successful, travel around the globe to discuss with colleagues. That’s what gives me a buzz!
European School in Luxembourg (1983); University of Stuttgart, University of Tuebingen (Germany), finished in 1991 (Biochemistry) and 1993 (Biology). Medical University of Luebeck – finished in 1996 (PhD)
I have a Degree in Biochemistry and one in Biology (both the University of Tuebingen in Germany), and a PhD from the University of Luebeck, also in Germany
Postdoc at Research Centre Borstel, followed by postdoc in Edinburgh, followed by Scientific Management in Muenster, Germany, and in Nottingham since 2001
Associate Professor in Allergy and Infectious Diseases
University of Nottingham
White-haired mad scientist without the ‘mad’ bit, and in the future, without the hair
I live in Nottingham with my wife and two of my daughters, the third daughter already goes to University abroad. In my spare time, I play the guitar, do gardening, assemble and disassemble computers, read science fiction literature (roughly written between the 1950s and 1990s) and historical fiction (Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa mistery series is my favourite series), as I like to temporally extend in both directions – the future and the past.
I would love to take out my dog for a daily walk, but unfortunately we have no dog. I would also like to walk on a beach, but Nottingham is as far away as you can be from any UK coast. I don’t watch TV, so have no favourite shows. But I do enjoy the Simpsons! So what is there left to do: I play table tennis competitively, but have done lots of other sports in the past: athletics, volleyball, handball, judo, swimming. I have tried Yoga, but fell asleep. That one is not for me!
But truth is, most of the day is dominated by my work. Luckily for me, I like my work!
I work on allergy and infectious diseases, mainly parasites and other bugs (not on viruses)
A lot of information on our group’s work is available on https://nottingham.ac.uk/research/groups/allergy-and-infectiousdiseases/index.aspx.
The work is centred on understanding how infectious organisms interact with the human body, at the cellular and molecular level. I am interested in how some bacteria and parasitic worms are able to adapt to very harsh environments (e.g. Helicobacter pylori in the stomach) or are able to evade the host immune system for many years (e.g. Schistosoma mansoni).
Another line of work in the lab is focused on understanding allergy, and developing new better tools for allergy diagnosis. We are working on replacing skin prick tests with more accurate and less unpleasant tests, that allow us to test hundreds of different allergens at the same time using only a small drop of blood. Those of you who have an allergy and have been tested by skin prick testing know that the procedure used currently is not ideal! It brings discomfort and the results, particularly when dealing with suspected food allergy, are far from being reliable.
Although it may appear at first sight that parasites and allergy are not related, truth is that they are two sides of the same medal. Allergy is caused by certain antibodies which will be produced by white blood cells called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), and it is this IgE which causes all the unpleasant symptoms of allergy: the itching, the sneezing, the redness, and in the worst case they can cause death – think of allergy to peanuts. The same IgE antibodies however are protecting against infection with parasites, and also seem to play a protective role against some cancers. So IgE has two faces: a destructive one, which causes disease and discomfort in many people, and a protective one.
This dual relationship however is a problem and one of the reasons why we still don’t have a vaccine against worm infections. A protective vaccine would be one that causes IgE levels in the vaccinated person, but at the same time the vaccinated person would be more likely to suffer from allergy.
How to get out of this situation is something we would like to understand. Can the positive, protective effect of IgE be separated from its negative, dangerous effect? If yes, how?
My Typical Day
I don’t have a typical day – that’s the whole beauty of my job!
What I appreciate most in my profession is the freedom I have on a daily basis . I don’t have fixed working times so my day can start any time between 8 and 10.30 in the morning, with an open end. Truth is that (many? most? some?) scientists never stop working, they will keep thinking about their work and problems to solve when cycling or driving back home and carry on work once they get there- sometimes to the dismay of their partners! Sometimes (on a bad day, when everything goes wrong) I will finish at 5 pm, but rarely before that time.
Of course there are specific occasions such as lectures, meetings etc. which need to be attended punctually so in those days I am as precise as a Swiss clock.
During the day I will spend a lot of time behind the computer, writing scientific publications, grant applications, reports, letters, and lots of e-mails. I get about 50-70 e-mails every day of which about half are relevant and need to be read or actioned, the remainder lands in the trash bin as spam. I have regular 1:1 meetings with the members of my group (currently 14), and every two weeks we have a longer lab meeting (about 3 hours) where we discuss general laboratory issues and every students gives a short update about their research progress. I also meet with my tutees, these are undegraduate Pharmacy students in Year 1 to 4 of their 5-year Pharmacy degree, and I follow them throughout their whole study, so get to know them quite well.
And then there is a good deal of administration; committe meetings, staff meetings etc., all of which is necessary but rarely very funny.
In rare moments, I will find the timeto read some scientific journals and explore some new ideas, but these moments are rare and far apart unfortunately.
What I enjoy most is interacting with lots of people from all parts of the world. Apart from Australia, I think that I have worked with people from every continent and countless countries. Currently members from my group are from: Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Spain, Iraq, Italy, but I also had lab members from China, Canada, Germany, France, Ghana, Scotland, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, in no special order. And yes, also people from the UK! This is great fun but sometimes it can be challenging because of cultural differences, which can affect perceptions and expectations.
What I'd do with the money
Write a little book about parasites for children
If I won the prize, I would write a small booklet about parasites, aimed at children aged 8-11 (or 12-15: I still need to decide). In this book, I would try to express the awe and admiration I have for parasites, the power of nature and evolution. It would describe some of my favourite parasites – not necessarily parasites that affect humans, but parasites which use really, really unexpected strategies to ensure their survival.
I would write about parasites, and parasites of parasites. And perhaps parasites of parasite of parasites.
This book would try to explain why parasitism is the most successful survival strategy in nature, and how we are so dependent on parasites, that without them, we develop allergies!
Although I don’t have at this stage a clear idea of what exactly to use the funds for, the budget would be spent on production costs and getting some really nice illustrations. We run after school science clubs in local primary schools and we could then distribute the booklets there, but could also make them available on the web.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
free-thinker, idealist, pragmatic
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Very difficult: If I had to choose one, and only one, it would have to be: Jacques Brel
What's your favourite food?
Lots of food but it will have to be vegetarian, with lots of flavour; I love basil, rosemary and thyme.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Whale watching in the USA and driving a car through half Japan, including the crazy traffic in Tokyo
What did you want to be after you left school?
Before I left school, a lawyer, after leaving school, a scientist. Or an orchestra director! In a way, that’s what I have become, I direct a small orchestra, and we all play on expensive instruments!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
As class speaker I was regularly involved in trouble, but most of the times, none of my doing
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology. Also: Chemistry, Physics, Latin, German, Italian, English, Geography, Philosophy, History, PE – anything except Mathematics!
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Led a project from beginning to end (not that there is such a thing as an end) for more then 10 years, from the first idea to the experimental evidence, then publish, and see how it then slowly becomes part of the global body of knowledge about a certain topic!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Dr Hugo Kala in the Luc Orient comics from Eddy Paape and Greg. Check them out if you can!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Symphonic orchestra director; science fiction writer, carpenter or landscape gardener, or journalist, but certainly nothing to do with: the military, or religion
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Have more money for my research – more time for my family – be able to play cello or the harp; or my third wish would be to get another three wishes, and so on in all eternity.
Tell us a joke.
I sometimes use words I don’t understand to sound more photosynthesis
This is a picture taken in our lab, which is very bright and spacious. Standing next to me is Zeeshan, a former PhD student who finished a few years ago. If you have attention to detail (which is a great skill to have in science), you may have noticed the gold fish on my lab coat. It’s not mine, it was my daughter’s, but it’s my way of showing that I don’t take myself too seriously, despite my grey hair.
Below is a picture of me looking at a printed protein array, that’s a specially coated glass slide with lots of proteins printed on it by a very expensive printer, which works a bit like an inkjet printer. My colleague Marcos Alcocer and I have been printing 400 different allergens on one such slide, and used it to test allergy to all sorts of food found in the average British diet, starting from fish and chips.
And below is another image taken from a movie still in my office, doing what I do best: sticking little red and green, twisted pipe cleaners into an apple, pretending that the former are IgE antibodies, and the latter a mast cell, to explain the mechanism of allergy.
And below is an example of the images which I generate using some very special software. This picture shows the structure of a protein which the stomach bug Helicobacter pylori uses to firmly attach to the stomach wall, where it causes inflammation, and in some people, stomach ulcers. This is because although the stomach content is very acid (which is not good for the bacteria), close to the surface, underneath a slimy layer called mucus, the acidity is much lower. In fact there, the pH is around seven, so quite neutral, and the bacteria like to live there.
Below is a picture of an egg of Ascaris suum, a parasite infecting the guts of pigs which is very similar to a human parasite, called Ascaris lumbricoides (also known as the gut roundworm). The adult worms are found in the gut, and they can get pretty big, around 15-20 cm and about 4-5 mm wide. Yuck or Yeah?
Below, a word cloud generated from one of my lectures on parasites. The bigger the word, the more often it occurs in the lecture. That gives you a good idea of what I talk about in this lecture. Something about a can of worms causing infection, transmission of eggs and common symptoms in children? Here’s a challenge: make up your own sentence from these words!
My favourite teaching room, where I teach laboratory diagnosis of malaria. The picture only shows about half of the room. The monitors show what I have under the microscope in real time.