Peter Oliver

Molecular Neurobiology

Career so far

I studied for a degree in Biochemistry at The University of Bath (1992–96), followed by a PhD in mouse genetics and virology at The MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London (1996–99). I then took up a post-doctoral position with Kay Davies in the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at the University of Oxford, which led to a senior post-doctoral post characterising new mouse models of neurodegeneration and neurobehavioural disorders. In 2013 I was awarded a European Research Council Starting (Consolidator) Grant to establish my own research group at the University of Oxford focusing on novel factors that influence neuronal survival. In 2017 I was awarded an MRC Programme Grant to set-up the new Molecular Neurobiology group at MRC Harwell Institute to continue this work.

What led you to choose a career in this field?

The scientific communicators on television in the 1980s were certainly an early inspiration – including going up on stage at one of Jonny Ball’s shows when I was seven years old! Much later, I had summer jobs at a small biotechnology company in Oxford – those experiences really convinced me that molecular biology would always be a fast-moving and exciting area to be involved in. In terms of mouse genetics, the thought that you could clone and identify a whole new gene, that nobody had ever described before, was a key incentive during my PhD and post-doctoral positions.

What drives you? Has this changed over the years?

Still the fact that you can be the first person to observe something – that may be important to many others in the future – is still a big driver for me. Since the arrival of genomic sequencing, there may be fewer entirely ‘new’ genes, but there is still so much to learn about normal gene function.

What has been your biggest breakthrough in research in the last 10 years?

I am proud of the fact we have generated some important new insights into the function of a specific family of genes (including the gene OXR1); yet our description of the first 24-hour transcriptional profile of the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the region of the brain that controls the body clock (eLife, 2015), was a great example of teamwork combining laboratory science and genomics to generate something for the whole community.

What is your ultimate goal as a researcher?

Ultimately my aim is to improve the lives of those that suffer from neurological disorders. I am also keen to ensure research science, in particular neuroscience, is communicated to the public in way that encourages interest and debate; for one example of this, see www.silentsignal.org.

Tell us something interesting about yourself 

My main interest outside of science is music – I have been playing drums for over 30 years and still play gigs regularly and record with several bands in and around Oxford. During my PhD my band was played on Radio 1, but the cassette was stretched so the song lasted a minute longer than it should have! I’ve also performed in the scientific stand-up comedy show Bright Club – a surprisingly valuable experience that I would highly recommend.