This has been too much fun. <3 you guys both students and other scientists!.
1994-1999: St. Joseph’s secondary school, Ballinasloe. 1999-2003 and 2007-2008: NUI Galway. 2010-2011: University College Cork.
B.Sc. (Marine science), H.Dip. (Applied microbiology), M.Sc. (Bioinformatics and systems biology)
I was a very bored security guard 2003-2007, and before starting my Ph.D. I spent 18 months working as a research assistant in UCC.
I’m a Ph.D. student at UCC, although my lab is out in Teagasc Moorepark, in Fermoy.
University College Cork. Specifically, a Science Foundation Ireland grant from the Alimentary & Pharmabiotic Centre of UCC.
Favourite thing to do in science: My favourite thing about science is playing about with cool technology. I get access to everything from custom-built DNA strands to high-powered computer networks to microscopic beads that clean individual molecules and are also magnets! Gadgets and technology are the Best Thing.
My Work: I look at the bacteria that grow in your gut (mostly by rooting through someone’s poop, yay!), and how they can affect your physical and mental health.
I’m a Ph.D. student, just after completing my first year of research. I’m with the Alimentary and Pharmabiotic Centre in University College Cork, who are all about the micro-organisms that live in your gut (We call them your microbiota). Research is showing that our microbiota has an effect on almost everything about us, including physical and mental health, allergies and even our brain chemistry, and we can affect all these things by controlling our microbiota.Right now I’m mostly involved in research into how our gut microbiota can influence kids developing allergies as they grow up. It’s still too early to say anything for sure, but there are some interesting links between the bacteria in our gut and things like asthma, depression and more. My first goal is to collect and analyse gut samples from both healthy people and people suffering from various allergies or diseases, and see if there’s any pattern. It might be that having a certain combination of bacteria living in your intestines makes you more likely to get asthma or depression, it might not. We won’t really know for sure until we have a look.To do that, I’m going to turn the DNA from each sample (this could be a tiny snippet of someone’s intestine, but most often it’s a tube containing someone’s poop. It’s a good thing I love my work…) into computer data through a fancy-sounding process called “metagenomic sequencing”. Then I’ll run that data through gigantic worldwide databases to figure out exactly what species of bacteria are living in these peoples’ guts, and what chemicals these bacteria produce. From there I can work out if there’s any major differences in gut bacteria between one group of people and another, which could explain why, for example, one group has more asthmatic people in it than another. All of this from studying someone’s poop.SCIENCE!Later on in the Ph.D. I may well be looking into ways to take advantage of what I find by developing probiotic foods that can help restore balance to the gut bacteria of people with health issues like those I mentioned above. We’ll have to see what comes out of the current experiments before planning that, though.
My Typical Day: A healthy mix of extracting DNA from tissue samples, and seeing just how much coffee a 32 year old male can drink.
What I do varies a lot depending on the project I’m working on. Right now, I’m extracting DNA from biopsy samples of kids’ intestines so I can see what bacteria grow in the mucosal layer (the layer of your intestine that does most of the absorbing of nutrients from your food). This is a rare treat for me, as the samples are usually someone’s poop instead of biopsies, but for the next couple of months, my typical day goes like this:- Arrive at the lab, check emails over coffee to see if any results came back or my supervisor has any new work for me. And, because I am a shameless geek, sneak a look at the day’s video game news.- Set up my workbench with the tools and chemicals I need to process today’s batch of biopsy samples. The samples themselves are stored at a cool -80 degrees Celsius, so I’ll take them out to thaw too.- Spend a couple of hours extracting the DNA. It mostly boils down to putting a tissue sample in special solutions which break down cell membranes and proteins, but leave DNA unharmed. We can then squeeze the solution through specially designed filters which catch DNA while letting everything else through. Then we wash each filter a few times to make sure there’s only DNA left, before running another chemical through which causes the DNA to detach, leaving us with a little tube containing almost pure DNA from the sample.- Break for lunch. This usually involves more coffee. I believe coffee is a very important part of being a scientist.- Back into the lab. If there are a lot of samples to get through, I’ll go back to DNA extraction. Otherwise, I’ll take samples from earlier in the day (or days before) and start getting them ready for our sequencing machine. This involves using PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) to make copies of the DNA in each sample, and filtering out the human DNA with microscopic magnetic beads that stick to the DNA we don’t want, and then drawing them out of the sample with magnets. I am not kidding. This part of the job is *awesome*.-By this time the day is usually over. So I put my samples in the fridge for the next day, or if they’re ready for the sequencer, in a -20 degree freezer until the whole batch can be run in one go. Then I tidy up my workbench, write up my day’s work in my notebook, and head home. For more coffee.Probably the most valuable machine in the university.-If I’m not exhausted from the day’s work, I’ll usually play some video games. I’m a big fan of tabletop role-playing games too, so every now and then I’ll write one of those to run for friends on a weekend.
What I'd do with the money: I’d donate it to the APC’s Public Outreach Program to develop more and more interesting ways to sharing science with people.
The Alimentary & Pharmabiotic Centre does a lot of good work raising awareness of science across the country. It sends scientists out to schools to give talks, holds the occasional public forum, and takes part in events like Discovery (Cork’s science festival) around the country. Some of their most entertaining works have included an 8 metre long replica of the digestive tract that you can walk around inside, and inviting students from various schools in to the UCC microbiology labs for workshops.
I like to get involved in the Outreach Program when I’m able to take some time out from lab work. I manned the Science Foundation Ireland kiosk at a career fair in February to talk to anyone interested in jobs or postgraduate courses in the APC. I got to meet scientists of all ages either looking for a job or interested in changing careers. Most of them studied different types of science to what I’ve studied, which is great for finding different approaches and points of view to a subject. Everyone’s enthusiasm sort of rubs off and you come back from an event like that with a new love for your own work, and maybe some new ideas on how to crack a problem you’ve been having.
If I won, I’d put the money towards the Outreach Program, to help the development of more fun exhibits and events for the public. We could get more scientists to visit schools, or hold more workshops to let people get hands-on experience with some of the technology we use. It could help me and my colleagues create exhibitions for a science festival, or (my personal favourite, given my love of video games) fund the development of a mobile app based puzzle game to teach people about the complex web of chemical reactions that bacteria perform for the bodies they live in. the APC has a really diverse set of people from microbiologists to neuroscientists to computer programmers, there’s not much we *couldn’t* do with the money to help bring science to the public.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Too many puns
Who is your favourite singer or band?
AC/DC is probably the greatest band ever. I won’t mind if you disagree. Nobody’s perfect…
What's your favourite food?
Sushi. gief plzkthx
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Uh… The most fun *legal* thing I’ve done would be helping to set up and run an annual games convention in NUI Galway in 2005. I’m proud to say it ran for the 10th year in a row last March, and it’s still going strong. Look up Itzacon Eire, folks!
What did you want to be after you left school?
I always wanted to be a scientist of some sort. It was a close call between microbiology and physics.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Rarely. I was one of those charming kids that usually got away with murder. One time I actually tried the “dog ate my homework” excuse. It worked!
What was your favourite subject at school?
Either biology or physics, I left school in 1999 so I don’t really remember…
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I went to a bioinformatics summer school in Cambridge at the end of July this year. It was a great experience for posters and presentations, and I got to have lunch/dinner/drinks with some of the really big names in my field. All paid for by my university! Fantastic experience. Shout out to Steve the Bartender, who gave me books on Japanese samurai to take home with me!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I had parents who encouraged me to learn about what interested me, and so I read like crazy and found out about people like Einstein, Darwin, Stephen Hawkings… I wanted to be like those guys, doing science at the universe until it coughed up a secret!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Whatever I had next on my CAO form. I think it was engineering. It might have been biotechnology. I pretty much put down a load of interesting courses at random.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1: Add an 8th day to the week so I could have a longer weekend. 2: Make everyone have a Scottish accent. Scottish accents are the best. 3: Pet cybernetically enhanced dinosaur with lasers. Because it’s my wish and I’ll use it how I bally well like.
Tell us a joke.
What do you do with a dead chemist? You barium!
Professor Des Higgins from UCD (right) developed Clustal, one of the world’s most popular DNA alignment programs. And I got to chat with him over a drink at the bioinformatics summer school in Cambridge!
And this is my desk, where I look at pictures of cats. I occasionally use the computer to turn all the data I get from experiments into pretty graphs. Note the coffee maker on the right. This is very important.
A typical day at work >_>