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Working life: technology specialist Mark Skehel

by Guest Author on 4 Apr 2019

A technology specialist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Mark Skehel helps fellow scientists use powerful techniques to study proteins, alongside his own biomedical research. He describes his career spanning industry and academia, and how he’s benefited from embracing change.

Mark in his lab at the MRC LMB, holding a sample vial in front of a mass spectrometer – an instrument used to identify and measure molecules based on their mass-to-charge ratio.

Career in brief

  • Laboratory technician at Smith, Kline & French
  • Degree in chemistry with biochemistry at King’s College London
  • Higher scientific officer at the MRC LMB and PhD in chemistry
  • Investigator scientist at SmithKline Beecham and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)
  • Head of Protein Analysis and Proteomics at Cancer Research UK
  • Head of Biological Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics at the MRC LMB

Listen to Mark’s career inspirations in our MRC talks podcast interview: 

At the age of five or six my father had us pipetting Coca-Cola when we were in Burger King in North Carolina. Then, when I was a little bit older, I used to go into the lab on a Saturday. My father worked on influenza – you grow influenza in eggs – and there were three people: one guy would punch two holes in the eggs, my father would inject influenza virus, and I’d cover the holes with molten wax. So I thought I was a scientist from an early age.

When I left school I decided not to go to university or into further education straight away. I went to work for the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French, in an analytical development lab, where I found I had an interest in analytical equipment. I went to university after a few years and did a degree in chemistry and biochemistry. Then when I’d finished that, I moved up here to Cambridge, in the old LMB, to work with John Walker using an automated Edman sequencer to determine the sequence of proteins.

We use mass spectrometry to look at interacting proteins. So you might have a protein of interest but proteins seldom work alone. Mass spectrometry really helps you understand pathways, protein-protein interactions and you can use it to look at different expression levels of protein. So in disease, if one protein is up- or down-regulated, you could look at that in tissues or in plasma to get a feeling for how your proteome – that’s the full set of proteins in your body – is changing during a particular illness.

Mark pictured programming a Janus liquid handling robot, which prepares protein samples for mass spectrometry.

There isn’t really a typical day. As we’re a core facility here at the LMB, we’re working with four divisions doing different things: neurobiology, cell biology, protein and nucleic acid chemistry, and structural studies. Yesterday, for instance, I was talking to Jason Chin, who has reprogrammed a strain of E.coli with his unnatural amino acids, and Lalita Ramakrishnan, who’s looking at tuberculosis in zebrafish. It’s really very varied what we do.

My best career decision was to work for Cancer Research UK, and that was my jump back into an academic lab, having been in industry for 10 years. I was moving on from GSK because they were rationalising their whole research and development setup, and proteomics at that time was deemed to be a ‘nice to have’. They had enough targets that they wanted to work on, meaning we were surplus to requirements as a department, so I was looking for something else. I moved to a place where the science was phenomenal, the people were fantastic and it gave my career a real kick.

I’ve enjoyed my time spent in industry and in academia, but they are different. In an academic lab you can get really into the nitty-gritty of a subject, if you like, with the freedom to do the kinds of experiments and techniques that you think are appropriate. When you’re working for a company, that’s very much driven by what that the pharmaceutical company’s goal is – what targets they want to look at at the time.

What industry does very well is this business of team science, or big science: bringing people with a tremendous amount of knowledge to bear on a particular subject. There are whole departments of bioinformaticians, of statisticians, of cell biologists, and it just drives things forward really quickly. It’s energising to be involved in that kind of situation.

You take inspiration from many different events; hearing people talk, just seeing the sun rise is kind of inspirational. You’ve got to be inspired working in this place with the people here, because it is fantastic. Their drive and desire for their science is palpable. But of course the one person that inspired me is my father. I think everybody would say that, but it’s true. I’m in awe of the man. I’ve always been amazed by his wisdom and ability to see clearly through situations.

If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I would say embrace change. Don’t see it as a negative, see the positive in that. If you see an opportunity, take it. Don’t worry so much about things changing.

You can’t sit here in isolation and say “Oh, I’m going to develop a new technique”, that’s not how it works. You work with the guys, the scientists here at the LMB, and potentially elsewhere, who have a biological question. That’s what moves things forward.

As told to Isabel Harding

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