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Insight blog: Posts from the "Working life" Category

Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.

A look back at Peter Medawar

27 Feb 2015

Peter Medawar with colleagues at the NIMR

Peter Medawar with colleagues at the NIMR

Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate and Director of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in the 1960s, was born 100 years ago on 28 February. Here Frank Norman, Head of Library Services at the NIMR, looks back on how his research into skin grafts led to modern organ transplants, and his significant role in encouraging and supporting young scientists.

It was in 1940 that transplantation sparked the interest of the young Peter Medawar. While working as a researcher at the University of Oxford, an RAF plane crashed near to his home and one of the airmen suffered severe burns.

Through his experience of trying to help the airman, Medawar became interested in treating burn victims with skin grafts – a risky and often unsuccessful intervention. He prepared a review of the literature, Notes on the problem of skin homografts, which he sent to the War Wounds Committee of the MRC. [...]

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Remembering Mary Lyon and her impact on mouse genetics

3 Feb 2015

Dr Mary Lyon, an important figure in the field of mouse genetics, died in December. Here Katherine Nightingale looks back on her career, from a ‘titular’ degree to her impact on generations of scientists, via a discovery in the early 1960s which explained a fundamental difference between men and women in the inheritance of disease.

A portrait of Mary Lyon by artist Dr Lizzie Burns

A portrait of Mary Lyon by artist Dr Lizzie Burns (Image copyright: Dr Lizzie Burns)

It’s not often that the MRC names a building after a scientist, even with our roll-call of scientific greats. But at MRC Harwell in Oxfordshire, the MRC Mary Lyon Centre teems with life — murine life that is. Opened in 2004, the centre is a national facility for mouse genetics where genetically modified mice are produced, cared for and studied.

Mary Lyon, who died on Christmas day 2014 aged 89, worked with mice throughout her scientific career, becoming one of the foremost geneticists of the 20th century through her research on mice with mutated genes. She made her most famous discovery, named ‘lyonisation’ in her honour, during her time at MRC Harwell.   [...]

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Working life: Eva Hoffmann

21 Jan 2015

Eva Hoffmann in her lab

Eva Hoffmann

MRC Senior Non-Clinical Research Fellow Dr Eva Hoffmann is trying to find why a woman’s risk of having a baby with a chromosomal disorder – such as Down syndrome – increases with age. Here she tells us about her working life.

I started my own lab after quite a short postdoc – three years – when I was awarded my Royal Society fellowship. I undertook this at the MRC Genome Damage and Stability Centre, now embedded within the University of Sussex. I’ve been an MRC Senior Non-Clinical Research Fellow for four years and that’s really allowed me to do more blue skies research that is paying dividends now.

Research focus

I’m interested in understanding how the information encoded in our genomes and chromosomes is transmitted accurately to the next generation.  For human health this is very important because there’s a high level of pregnancy loss associated particularly with a woman’s age. Today, more women over 30 are giving birth than in past generations – in the UK, women 35 and older account for around 20 per cent of all births. [...]

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Practical science: the lab technician

17 Dec 2014

Pat Edwards is a Research Support Technician in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. She spoke to The Long+Short about her job.

Pat Edwards

Pat Edwards (Image copyright: Chris Tate)

I suppose I am an archetypal technician. We have a lot of new people just trying to work out what’s going on, so I’m a knowledge base for a lot of the things, the methods and technologies, which go on in the lab.

We do structural biology of membrane proteins, which has huge implications for medicine. I do anything from expressing those proteins, to purification and crystallisation. I work with my boss and a postdoc on a project that will change depending on who that is. My work is acknowledged and I am always on the papers that result from it.

My background is an applied biology degree. I was interested in doing science, but not in doing a PhD – I’m not very good at studying, but I’m a very practical person. My first job was actually here in the LMB, and I guess I really learnt the trade, if you could call it that, in the lab – which is really the more practical side of science. [...]

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Working life: Carol Robinson

14 Oct 2014

Professor Dame Carol Robinson is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Here she tells us about her working life, from becoming fascinated with mass spectrometry to the inspirational role of mentors.

Carol Robinson

Carol Robinson

I didn’t take the conventional route to get to where I am today. I actually left school at 16, which was a common thing to do in my school at the time. I’d always been interested in chemistry, so I got a job as a lab technician at Pfizer which was my nearest pharmaceutical company.

After working on various analytical techniques, including chromatography, used to separate mixtures of substances, and nuclear magnetic resonance to determine the structure of organic compounds, I found myself in the mass spectrometry lab, which I found fascinating.

I was lucky in that my supervisors picked up on my obvious passion and fledgling ability early on. They encouraged me to take various part-time courses, which after seven years of hard work resulted in a degree and a place at Cambridge to study for a PhD.     [...]

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Working life: Richard Coward

18 Sep 2014

Dr Richard Coward is an MRC Senior Clinical Fellow and Head of Research for the School of Clinical Sciences at the University of Bristol. Here he tells us about his working life from spending time with ‘beautiful’ cells to working with the pharmaceutical industry.

My MRC Senior Clinical Scientist Fellowship enables me to combine clinical and basic scientific work, allowing me to continue my laboratory and research interests as well as my clinical commitment to paediatric nephrology.

I was attracted to research at the end of my clinical training. The drive to do this was because I looked after a patient who had an inherited condition called congenital nephrotic syndrome, a disorder passed down through families in which a baby develops massive amounts of protein in the urine.

Soon afterwards it became clear that the podocyte cell, a beautiful cell in the glomerulus ― the filtering unit of the kidney ― that looks like a big octopus, was involved. The gene responsible for the disorder was discovered to code for a protein located exclusively in the podocyte. [...]

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Bedsheets, boats and biology: James Lovelock and the MRC

9 Jul 2014

Think James Lovelock, and most people think about Gaia theory, his idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system that keeps the conditions for life in a delicate equilibrium. But for 20 years Lovelock was a scientist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, studying a wide range of areas from preventing burns to freezing tissues. Katherine Nightingale went to a Science Museum exhibition about his life and work to find out more from its curator Alex Johnson.

Lovelock (left) with two of his NIMR colleagues, Owen Lidwell (centre) and Robert Bourdillon (Image copyright: Science Museum, courtesy of James Lovelock*)

Lovelock (left) with two of his NIMR colleagues, Owen Lidwell (centre) and Robert Bourdillon (Image copyright: Science Museum, courtesy of James Lovelock)

Much is made of James Lovelock’s decades as an independent scientist and inventor in a shed at the bottom of his garden. His thirst for scientific freedom and invention is well known ― even his adolescent short stories feature protagonists who just want to be left alone to pursue their own ideas.

Funny then, that Lovelock himself says that some of his most creative work was done while part of a large institution, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, between 1941 and 1961.

He has been known to refer to his time at the NIMR as an extended apprenticeship, working in various research divisions across the institute, and being encouraged to solve his own problems and create his own equipment. [...]

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Max Perutz: science communicator

12 May 2014

Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”

He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.

His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited. [...]

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Working life: Susan Gathercole

8 Apr 2014

Susan Gathercole

Susan Gathercole

Professor Susan Gathercole is the Director of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Here she tells us about her working life, from her roots in psychology to the unit’s high-tech kit.

There’s something rather special about being an MRC director. You need to know what everybody’s doing and they need your support and direction. We have a very close and productive community, a place that doesn’t have much regard for hierarchy; I’m completely in support of that.

I decided to study psychology after attending a lunchtime lecture in my sixth form on Freud, in the days before it was routinely taught in schools. Understanding our mental lives seemed much more interesting and relevant than any subjects I’d studied before. I was fortunate to get into a degree course in psychology that had just started at York University, and was taught by young and inspiring lecturers.

The field of psychology that still engages me most, 35 years after graduating, is cognition. For me it’s the heart of the discipline, focusing on the processes and systems involved in the higher mental processes that are central to adaptable human behaviour. Research has been transformed in the past 15 years by the development of cognitive neuroscience methods that enable us to understand how cognition is embedded the brain. [...]

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Andrew Jackson: Listening to brain cells

5 Feb 2014

Andrew Jackson is a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow in the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience. He told Katherine Nightingale about research, part-funded by the MRC, which aims to decipher the brain patterns that control arm and hand function to help paralysed people.

Like many researchers who run their own lab, Andrew Jackson doesn’t spend as much time at the bench as he’d like. But he does get to spend the odd hour or two doing one of his favourite things — listening to brain cells.

“They become like old friends,” he says. “We’ve been able to track the same neuron over days, weeks and months and you start to get to know them quite well.”

There are important reasons for getting to know neurons. Andrew and his colleagues are hoping to use the knowledge they gain from listening in on the brain to allow paralysed people to control external devices such as prosthetic arms using just their thoughts. [...]

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