Career so far
I have a BA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, where I specialised in genetics in my final year. I have a PhD in mouse molecular genetics (Imperial College, University of London) and first studied sex determination as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Queensland (Australia). I started my own lab at MRC Harwell back in 1996. I also have an MA degree in Philosophy from Birkbeck, University of London.
Can you explain what you do at MRC Harwell Institute?
I am a programme leader, which means I spend most of my time reading, writing or talking! My main responsibility is to supervise the research of students and postdocs in my lab. I am also the chair of Harwell’s ethical review board (AWERB) and regularly perform public engagement activities on scientific and ethical topics.
What led you to choose a career in this field?
When I was around 14 years of age I saw a picture of the DNA double-helix in a school textbook and I was immediately hooked on genetics – simple as that. I naively assumed that DNA held all the answers to what it is to be human – even the meaning of life! It’s a little more complicated than I thought…! Studying genetics at Cambridge introduced me to the importance of the model organism, especially in developmental genetics. Experiments to study gene function weren’t an option in humans (and are very difficult for a variety of reasons even today). So I decided quite early that the mouse was the model for me.
What drives you? Has this changed over the years?
Curiosity is the key for me: I have to see that there is a problem that needs to be solved and then I am quickly engaged. Developmental biology seems to me to be a tractable system to study – although it is still absurdly complicated! But over the years I have become increasingly interested in how science impacts on society, including policy. My interests in developmental biology and reproduction led me to get involved with the field of assisted reproduction. I have contributed to innovation and policy in this sector through my work with the HFEA and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
What has been your biggest breakthrough in research in the last 10 years?
My lab discovered that a common signal transduction pathway (MAPK) is critical for sex determination in mice and humans. We first identified it in the mouse using genetic screens and then collaborated with clinical geneticists to establish its importance for human DSDs. We have now characterised several components of this pathway. It turns out that in mice it controls the expression of the testis-determining gene, Sry, and our research is shedding light on the regulation of this important mammalian gene.
What is your ultimate goal as a researcher?
To see my research and the understanding that I have developed of science over the years make a positive difference to people’s lives. I also aim to promote a wider debate about genetics and the use of genetic technologies in humans.
Tell us something interesting about yourself
I once learned to play the didgeridoo in Brisbane, I am an FA-qualified youth football coach and I was born in Harold Hill (near Romford) – but it is unclear whether ‘the Hill’ is in Essex or Greater London. Now that’s interesting.