Mellow Lane School Hayes (1973-80), Nottingham University (1980-83), Sheffield University (1983-86)
BSc Genetics (Nottingham), PhD Behaviour Genetics (Sheffield)
Oxford University (1986-89)
Senior Lecturer in Genetics
University of Glasgow (since 1989)
Favourite thing to do in my job: To do something that no one has ever done before
Understanding how genes affect behaviour
No doubt you already realise that you, and I, look as we do due to some combination of the genes we inherit from our parents and the environment we live in. By environment we mean any experience you’ve had since you were conceived. So you are a product of what you eat, how much exercise you do, what germs you’ve been exposed to and even the weather.
But what about behaviour? It’s logical to think that the kind of person you are is influenced by family, friends, school and things like TV, the internet and other social media, and any other experience you’ve had. But how do genes influence behaviour? Indeed, do genes affect behaviour?
Let’s think of a very simple behaviour, running 100 metres as fast as you can. Are you born fast (genetic) or is it all about the right training regime and opportunities (environment)? Given that so may of the fastest men and women on earth are from one small country, Jamaica, we might think that genes play a significant role.
As humans are very difficult to study, my research uses an organism that has well understood genetics and interesting behaviours. Specifically the research question I ask is “How do fruit flies know what sex they are?”
My Typical Day
A mixture of research, teaching and public engagement
Fortunately there is no such thing as a typical day! I run the genetics degree at the University of Glasgow, so if it’s term time I’m likely to be teaching or perhaps talking to students about their work, or at this time of the year grading exam papers.
At other times of the year, especially the summer, I can undertake experiments asking the question “How do fruit flies know what sex they are?” Male and female fruit flies are born knowing precisely which sex they are, and can perform the whole repertoire of sex-specific behaviours even if they’ve never met another fly so never had the opportunity to learn how to behave. We use a wide variety of molecular genetic techniques to modify the genes of a fly to investigate which genes are involved in sex-specific behaviour. This allows us to generate flies that are part male and part female and investgate how they behave. For example how will a fly that is male behave if the smell processing part of ‘his’ brain is feminised? In a broader sense this helps us understand the genetic basis of wiring a brain.
At other times I work with a very talented group of people at Time-Tastical Productions. Together we produce Comedy Science shows such as Zombie Science that are targetted at teenagers. To date over 32,000 people have seen our show. Incidentally, that explains the picture above.
What I'd do with the prize money
Develop the Great Teddy Bear Challenge
Over the years I’ve taken the idea of ‘Genes and Behaviour’ to the Glasgow Science Festival and elsewhere. I call it ‘Blame Your Parents’ as they have provided all the genes, and most of the environment that has made you who you are. So if I won the money I hope the organisers of ‘I’m a scientist…’ would let me do something else.
I’d like to make some parachutes for Teddy Bears, or other assorted fluffy animals, that we could use in a live experiment at science festivals and other events. We could ask the public to bring their favourite fluffy toy, calculate the weight and height of said toy, and then hurl the parachute-wearing teddy from a tall building. The question is which teddy will parachute the furthest and why? I see this as a way of introducing people to statistics. Of course each teddy will receive a certificate commending their bravery.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
enthusiastic approachable persevering
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Once I’ve finished writing my book, it’ll be having finished writing my book
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My Biology teacher Ms Grounds
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I’ve managed to keep that quiet for many years, and am not about to reveal that now
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I think volcanos are fascinating, so possibly visiting or photographing them
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Play Joe the policeman in The Runway Theatre Production of ‘Lend Me a Tenor’
Tell us a joke.
Knock knock. Who’s there? Interrupting Cow. Interrupting Co……..? Moo.