Cuddling my friend's baby!
Steeple Morden primary school, Bassingbourn secondary school, a while at hospital schools or out of school, Hills Road sixth form college, then the University of York for both my degrees.
BSc degree in Psychology, Masters degree in Public Health.
All over the place, from a bicycle shop to living in a commune with Catholic Anarchists. I was out of work for several years before starting my current job, as I was quite ill with schizophrenia – so I’m really excited about being able to work in science!
My main job is Research Assistant in Microbiology, where my main project is looking at how antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’ spread in populations, and particularly whether poorer people are more likely to get them than richer people. But I am also working on several other projects, for example interviewing mothers who have a severe mental illness and have had to make decisions about taking medication for their mental illness during pregnancy.
Favourite thing to do in my job: Making the world a better place for everyone! The thing I hated most about science at school is that if our experiments didn’t get the results which were expected, we were told we were wrong. But this isn’t the way real science works at all! You don’t know what results to expect, that’s why you do the experiment. And if you get results that are really different from anything you expected, then you check very carefully that you did everything right, and then you get REALLY EXCITED and tell lots of other scientists about it. Other scientists might suggest different ways of understanding the results, or that your experiments were affected by something you didn’t think of, but as long as you carefully and accurately say what you did and what you found, there are NO WRONG ANSWERS.
I use maths to fight ‘superbugs’ like MRSA. I also talk to people about how they decide to use medicines.
I’ve recently started a new job researching how ‘superbugs’ – antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA – spread outside hospitals. In particular, we are going to look at how this is affected by things like how rich or poor people are. The first thing we have to do is read EVERYTHING that every scientist has ever written about this, and write a summary in a few thousand words. I love this bit of working in science, learning new things all the time.
I am mostly working on this project because I know useful bits of maths and how to do research on a whole population at once. I hadn’t worked in Microbiology before, so I am also having to learn lots of new things about bacteria and go back to my A level notes, and I am also learning lots from the people I work with all across the hospital. A few months ago I even went to Spain for a week to learn all about a new sort of statistics to keep track of the way bacteria spread – the person who had invented it mostly speaks Spanish and I don’t speak any at all, so it was hard work but good fun.
I also work on a few other projects. Some of these are about research on mental illness, because I have a mental illness called schizoaffective disorder, which is a mixture of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I also have dyspraxia, which can make me clumsy and forgetful. So when I wasn’t able to work for several years, I volunteered for lots of medical research, got more and more interested, and now I work on several projects which aim to get patients involved in research about their own condition, from telling the scientists what is important to find out about, to having patients design the studies, collect the data and analyse the results.
The biggest project on mental illness I’m involved in at the moment is talking to women with ‘severe mental illness’ to understand how they make decisions about taking or not taking medication during pregnancy. This is a really difficult choice, because there isn’t a clear ‘right’ answer, different doctors and scientists have different opinions on whether it is safer for the mum to come off medicines and risk getting ill, or to stay on medicines and risk the medicines affecting the baby. It depends a lot on what the mum thinks is important to her, and I’d like doctors to get better at listening to that.
Before that I was doing my Masters degree in Public Health. Public Health is about how to stop people getting ill in the first place, so everything from how to stop diseases spreading to how to design transport so people can walk or cycle more and get fitter. I found this fascinating, because it covers everything from very tiny bits of biology like how Ebola virus is passed on, to huge political questions about how to organise society so everybody can be well and happy. I did my big project on how parents make decisions about giving their children the MMR vaccine.
Before that I was mostly not well enough to work for a few years, I did a few odd jobs.
My Typical Day
I do lots of different things every day – from talking to people to going through old hospital records.
I don’t really have a typical day at work. Today I have mostly been sat in a cafe reading what other scientists have written about how ‘superbugs’ spread. But on other days I might be travelling across the country to talk to a Mum with a small baby about how she decided what medicines to take while she was pregnant, or I might be trying to read a doctor’s messy handwriting in hospital notes from ten years ago to find out what antibiotics they were using. I might even be in Spain trying to remember enough Spanish to order a vegetarian omelette from the hospital canteen for lunch before spending the afternoon learning about new ways of using maths to track the spread of superbugs.
What I'd do with the prize money
I would visit schools to talk about life as a scientist, and I would give some to the McPin Foundation, who help people with mental illness do science about things which are important in their own lives.
I would visit schools to talk about life as a scientist, particularly life as a disabled scientist, since when I was at school I kept getting told what I couldn’t do because I was disabled, and nobody told me that I could do lots of interesting and useful things and be a scientist. I would also talk about the research I’m doing on antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’, because these are going to be a very big problem – if antibiotics stop working then we will go back to a time when people could die from an infection in even a tiny scrape. It is really important that everyone cuts down on the use of antibiotics, including feeding antibiotics to animals in battery farms to make them grow faster – but this needs lots of people to understand the problem and to campaign for meat producers to stop doing this and politicians to make it illegal. I would visit your school if it wasn’t too far away.
If I had any money left over, I would give it to the McPin Foundation, who help people with serious mental illness to carry out scientific research themselves about things which are important to them. Working with the McPin Foundation helped me a lot to get into being a professional scientist myself, so I would like to help them do the same for other people.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, enthusiastic, nosy!
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Doing a big project where I thought up a new way of understanding the data, and found out something nobody else had ever known about before.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Arguing with people! I thought I could do a better job of running the health services where I was a patient than they could.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, all the time! Being in trouble is a good thing sometimes. It means you are thinking for yourself, talking back, asking awkward questions, and standing up for what you believe in. I’m proud to say I’ve caused quite a lot of trouble since I left school, too!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I’m very bossy, so I’d like to be Prime Minister of the whole world – or realistically I’d probably work in health policy, but that still needs lots of science.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
‘The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing’ – very funny steampunk, and a lot of their songs are about Public Health, like the ‘Great Stink’ when the river Thames smelled so bad that Parliament had to be evacuated https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XwemMOMmWM
What's your favourite food?
Chickpea curry, rice and naan bread – especially after I’ve been running ‘cos then I’m really hungry.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Hard to choose! I’ve run 55 miles, jumped out of an aeroplane, done an Ironman triathlon, and all sorts of things. I like being outside. I’ve also talked live on BBC Breakfast, to Parliament, and all sorts – I like explaining things. And I recently went to a tiny village in the middle of Spain to learn more maths, but I learnt a lot about Spain too.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I’d like to not need so much sleep so I have more time for interesting things, to be better at climbing trees, and to be able to make the world a fairer place.
Tell us a joke.
What do you give to the person who has everything? Penicillin! (This isn’t a very good joke, because penicillin doesn’t cure ‘everything’, but when penicillin was invented then it seemed to be a miraculous cure-all, so people used loads of it. Now we know that using too much makes bacteria evolve to be harder to kill).