I enjoyed studying science at school in Germany. After my degree in biochemistry with physiology, I did a PhD in structural biology at the University of Southampton under the supervision of Prof. Steve Wood. My PhD was funded by the British Heart Foundation and focused on studying proteins involved in heart disease using X-ray crystallography. This method requires crystals, which interact with X-rays and allowed us to look at the protein molecules at the molecular level. This knowledge can be used to further our understanding of how particular protein molecules work and how we can alter their function with drug molecules.
Following my PhD, I took up a couple of postdoctoral research positions in London and Southampton, where I dipped my toes into nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as well as biophysics and gained experience working on lots of projects and with scientists from different fields. I decided I enjoyed X-ray crystallography the most and applied for a role as Senior Support Scientist and Crystallisation Facility Manager at Diamond Light Source, which is where I am currently based.
What do you do here and how does your experience help?
As the Crystallisation Facility Manager I maintain and run the state of the art Crystallisation Facility on the Harwell campus, which is located in the Research Complex at Harwell adjacent to Diamond. This facility is used by a broad spectrum of local as well as international academic and industrial scientists, who I support and train to move as many projects as possible forward.
Recently I have progressed to Research Scientist, which allows me to dedicate more time towards my own research into cutting edge technologies and research projects. Having gained lots of experience on a variety of projects over the years, being very methodical and logical has been key to projects making progress and generating data to answer the question the scientist has.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Diamond?
I enjoy being at the forefront of research technologies and having access to a wide range of cutting-edge instruments and state of the art facilities. I love the variety of my job and no day is the same. It’s a really collaborative environment and I find it truly interesting and rewarding being involved in lots of different projects and seeing them progress.
What advice would you give someone wanting to get involved in your field?
Dip into different fields and gain as much hands on experience as possible. Don’t just look at the obvious academic route. Looking back on my career it would have been helpful to do a year in industry. If I had, I would have probably come to Diamond 10 years earlier. So, I would really advocate people to do a year in industry because it opens you up to new routes.
Get a mentor early and focus on what you enjoy. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good mentor to talk through problems and help you experience other ways and aspects of science.
Work smart as well as hard and don’t give up too soon. Find the reason why the experiment/plan did not work.
What is the most interesting project you’ve been involved in?
Definitely the Covid Nanobody Project as it was intellectually really stimulating, a fast-moving challenge and revealed exciting insights. The project required quite a bit of trouble shooting, generated lots of data and turned out to be an incredibly productive period. If I look back, this kind of work is what got me into STEM. It reminded me of how exciting the first year of my PhD was and I still get excited to find crystals and see molecules the human eye cannot see. I am very proud of what our collaboration achieved in those first four months of Lockdown and I take huge satisfaction that what we have designed might be one of the treatments that will be offered to patients with Covid-19 in the near future.
The Covid Nanobody Project was a collaboration to begin the complex and urgent task of understanding and fighting Covid-19. It was led by Prof. Jim Naismith, Head of the Rosalind Franklin Institute (The Franklin) involving nine researchers from Diamond Light Source, the Franklin, Oxford University and Public Health England. (The Franklin is focused on speeding up drug discovery, de-coding molecules to combat disease and training algorithms to advance vital health research.)
The collaboration took a skills-based approach as lockdown meant most people had to work in isolation. Safety was paramount, so we used a strict pipeline approach with each researcher focusing on their key skills. This minimised the movement of researchers through physical areas (only the samples moved) and we worked in a shift pattern to both minimise crossover between researchers and maximise productivity. This was great because it meant we all worked only to our strengths and dropped the aspects we are less good at. Jim Naismith led the computing analysis and I focussed on producing crystals and collecting the data (both of which I love) and we were fast! To give a sense of speed, I went from protein delivery at 17:00, crystal plate set up at 18:00 to crystals the following morning at 9:00, cryocooling at 12:00 and data collection the following morning. Jim would then convert the data to structure at the end of that day.
Although I pretty much worked on my own through the night during the pandemic, I never felt lonely because we were just so busy. We were driven by adrenaline to just move forward as fast as we could. Everything clicked into place, and we were able to move really fast - faster than I think any of us expected. I was pushing my limits in every way, but I had the best and most productive time as a researcher ever. Being in touch with one another via different new mediums really helped and some of us formed longstanding friendships.
What makes Diamond different from other organisations that you could work for?
Diamond is an interesting organisation at its sits at the interface between academia and industry. Although, we dedicate a large fraction of our time towards users, we are able to dedicate time to develop new technologies and are able to access a pool of knowledge from very diverse fields.
Diamond has many different roles available, so an individual can work in a role that suits their current needs. For example, you may want to be more in a support role, then a lead role. Diamond allowed me to take time out from full time research and then get back into research when I was ready for it.
Diamond Light Source is the UK's national synchrotron science facility, located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
Copyright © 2022 Diamond Light Source
Diamond Light Source Ltd
Harwell Science & Innovation Campus
Diamond Light Source® and the Diamond logo are registered trademarks of Diamond Light Source Ltd
Registered in England and Wales at Diamond House, Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, Didcot, Oxfordshire, OX11 0DE, United Kingdom. Company number: 4375679. VAT number: 287 461 957. Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number: GB287461957003.