Associate Professor Robert Weatherup is a new arrival in the Department of Materials. Continuing our series of ‘amazing people at Oxford you should know about’ ScienceBlog talks to Rob about his research in ‘interfaces science’ and the advances he’s working on for batteries, electric vehicles and sustainable technology.
You specialise in ‘interface science’. For the uninitiated, like myself, what does that mean?
Interface science is hugely important, but at the same time, it’s difficult to understand. When two surfaces meet, it’s where a lot of interesting chemistry happens.
If you think about your material, you have the ‘bulk’ and the ‘surface/interface’. The ‘bulk’ is where we have most of the material, all the atoms in ordered rows. It’s fairly easy to predict how that will behave. When you have two materials interfacing, you have a lot of that bulk on either side. And that gets in the way of trying to measure them.
The problem comes at interfaces where the surface interacts with other things. And that’s where it gets trickier.
For example, my work on batteries. In a lithium ion battery, you have an electrode in contact with liquid electrolyte. The reaction you want to happen is for lithium ions to travel from one electrode to the other. But you also get side reactions, like electrolyte decomposing or your electrode dissolving. These side reactions are why batteries stop holding as much charge. Like you see after about a year of using your phone, the battery just doesn’t go as far as it used to.
We want to be able to measure down to really small levels, like nanometre or even angstrom sensitivity at these interfaces. That means developing special techniques to do that.
And what kind of impacts and innovations can we expect to see coming out of this area?
Look at electric vehicles. People want the same kind of performance from electric cars as with petrol. They want it to last at least 10 years, have similar performance, and comparable cost. Two of the big problems with batteries at the moment is that they’re expensive and their total lifetime isn’t long enough.
If we can take that really close look at what’s going wrong, using some of these new techniques, we can try to find solutions for some of those problems.
What have been some of the milestones of the career that’s brought you to Oxford?
At heart, I’m a problem-solver, that’s why I got into engineering. So solving the problem of longer-lasting batteries, even a bit at a time, is exciting.
I did my PhD and undergraduate degree at Cambridge, in Engineering. I stayed to do a research fellowship, then I went to Berkeley in California for two years on the Marie Curie Fellowship, which was my route into looking at batteries.
To begin with, I was working on electronic devices, but then started to look more at the materials, like graphene.
Over in Berkeley they have a synchrotron facility that allowed for some really high sensitive techniques to look at those materials. A synchrotron is a big donut-shaped building where they spin electrons close to the speed of light to produce x-rays. I’ve spent a lot of my career hanging around different synchrotron facilities.
Basically, you use x-rays to illuminate the material you’re looking at. Then you can see the photoelectrons coming off it, which tells you a lot about its surface chemistry.
Using thin materials, like the graphene I’d been working with, I found a way to use this to look at higher pressure materials. For example, like the liquids you might find in batteries.
After Berkeley I went back to Cambridge and then I moved on to Manchester. For my research there I started working with the diamond synchrotron in Harwell, near Oxford, and that’s part of why I’ve ended up here.
So, you did your undergrad and PhD at Cambridge, you’ve also worked in Berkeley and Manchester, and now you’re at Oxford. How have you found moving between those places?
The US system was very different. Partly because I was going from a university system to a national lab. It was a lot more open, both in discussing ideas and sharing equipment.
Though, on return to the UK, I’ve found universities have moved in the same direction. There’s been a successful push to open things up and make resources more widely available.
Coming from Cambridge, did you get any light-hearted grief from friends for coming to Oxford? And how have you found Oxford, generally?
I did. But I got my just desserts I think, because I did some of that joshing when I was at Cambridge. We had a few people who had come from Oxford, so I was winding them up about that. And then they took it upon themselves to remind me of this when I turned the other way.
A lot of things are superficially very similar between the two, of course. I have to adjust my language, sometimes I’ll find myself in the middle of tutorials talking about ‘supervisions’, so some little things take a while to get used to. But I’m getting there!
They’re both great places to do science, so there have been no major surprises and I’m settling in well.
One of your big projects is the ominously titled ‘What Lies Beneath’ with the Faraday Institution. Tell us about that?
That one has only really just started. The funding came through just before I came to Oxford and we’ve just had our first post-doc start with us about a week ago here. What’s nice is that Oxford has lots of battery research, equipment and colleagues (like Peter Bruce and Mauro Pasta) to lend expertise.
That project still involves a collaboration with Manchester and with the Diamond Light Source at Harwell, so we’re keeping strong links with that excellent facility and I have some students based down there.
And what’s the overall goal of that project?
We are trying to look at the interfaces in batteries, which are buried. That ‘bulk’ I mentioned earlier? That hides a lot of the reactions.
So we’re looking at both solid state batteries and liquid cells, working to understand those lifespan issues.
Solid state batteries are where you have solid electrolytes. Those aren’t really commercially available yet, but they have very high energy density and can also be safer as the electrolytes aren’t flammable. But when you have these two thick solids, it’s even harder to probe. So we’re looking at ways to thin down the electrodes, and also looking deeper and using ‘hard x-rays’.
This is the first time this is being done with working batteries. Previously, you’d pull the surfaces apart to get a better look, but the chemistry is changed by separating them.
So you can’t look at what’s happening while the battery’s charging or discharging.
And what might the impact be of this kind of research? How’s it going to change how we look at batteries and electric vehicles?
The blue sky part of the research is new techniques to get a closer look at the interfaces and chemistry.
Practically, we hope to understand why we’re getting degradation in higher capacity materials.
There are new materials that could provide better performance and be cheaper. But they may also be less stable and interact in new ways with the electrodes, so we really want to understand why that is.
And these are batteries that are close to market already, so it can have a real impact on the industry.
You grew up in Chelmsford, right? Would it be okay to say a little about your journey from there to Cambridge and then to here? What got you into engineering?
I was born in Chelmsford and went to the local grammar school. Chelmsford’s actually where Marconi founded his first radio factory. So a lot of the local industry was related to telecommunications.
What got me into engineering was a very passionate design and technology teacher, who had a keen interest in electronics. She was really good at running after school activities that were great for involving you and keeping your interest up. She was one of the most defining teachers I had, definitely. She encouraged me to get involved in a local engineering scheme as a hobby too, and to seriously pursue a path to a career in the field.
It probably helped having a dad who was a physicist and worked as an electronic engineer for a local company too.
Oxford has a rich history of work on batteries, with John B. Goodenough, who pioneered the Lithium Ion battery, recently being awarded a Nobel Prize. How does your work build upon that history?
Absolutely. We’re working with very similar materials. The cathode materials we’re still looking at, 30-odd years on, are still based on that structure, tweaked for higher capacity.
He had a huge impact on the commercially viable lithium ion battery and his work is still very pertinent to the real batteries we’re working on.
Many of his former students and colleagues are active at Oxford; there’s Bill David in Chemistry here, who I work with at Diamond, and Peter Bruce here in Materials as well.
Obviously, electric cars and thus lithium ion batteries are a hot button topic at the moment, any insights on what the future holds for them, based on your work?
Not just my work – look at government policy. We’re committed to all cars being zero emission by 2040. Electric vehicles look like the most promising solution. Which is why things like the Faraday Institution have been founded.
In terms of what we’re doing, we want to make these new higher capacity materials viable for the next generation of batteries, to make them more stable and offer longer lifetimes. We expect that in about 5 to 10 years that these new materials could be used in real world batteries.
For solid state batteries too, I can’t give an exact estimate, but it could be up to 20 years before we see them used in cars or phones. But we could see them used in smaller portable devices sooner!
Talking of timescale, what do you think we’re looking at for when electric cars might meet people’s expectations, compared to petrol?
You’re not going to wake up overnight and find that suddenly batteries have twice the capacity. But those kind of advancements are coming, and our work is helping get there.
Gradually those little steps will keep building up and they’ll become cheaper, they’ll last longer and that kind of thing.
The more unpredictable thing is if we’ll have a breakthrough where suddenly we find a new kind of material that will completely change the game.
Obviously, I can’t say when or even if that will happen, but it’s the kind of thing that can only happen if we do the research and better understand what’s going on with the materials.
What one thing about your research we haven’t covered yet that you think is important and interesting?
Beyond the batteries, we’re working on how we might be able to make other technologies to be more sustainable. For example, the synthesis of fuels and chemicals.
There’s an increasing interest in this idea of green chemistry. So, how do you capture waste products from industry or vehicles (like CO2) and turn them into something useful? Basically, how do we close the ‘carbon loop’?
This will be one of the few ways to make some technologies sustainable – but we’re not going to see batteries powering planes any time soon.
Where do you want your career at Oxford to take you? Where will this research take you?
Firstly, I’m hoping to build up the strength of my group to address some of these problems! Oxford’s full of like-minded people, so it’s a great environment to do that.
And I’m hoping some of the techniques we’re developing, will really give the validation that we’re doing important work.
And what would you say to people considering studying engineering, electronics or materials?
‘Do it!’ I think people should definitely consider it if they like problem-solving and understanding how the world works.
In terms of personal qualities, you need a lot of resilience and persistence. The nature of research is that things often go wrong and it’s easy to give up and call it a day, but often those are the times where, if you just keep going, you can make it work or learn why it wasn’t working. So many of the things we’ve understood in history aren’t from well-designed experiments that went well, but from when they didn’t go well. Just keep pushing on.
By Amy Hinsley
Promoted as a 21st century version of the ancient Silk Roads, China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) aims to improve global connectivity and change the shape of international trade. The multi-billion-dollar project will link China with countries in Southeast and Central Asia, East Africa, Europe and beyond, building a network that will include almost two thirds of the world’s population.
From a conservation and sustainability perspective, the roads, railways and ports that form the land ‘belts’ and marine ‘roads’ of the BRI have received some attention but the aim to expand Traditional Chinese Medicine to the world has not. This may be a serious oversight, as products used in TCM are derived from plant, animal and fungal ingredients, many of which are wild-sourced. This means that rapidly growing markets could put pressure on species harvested legally to supply them, and may even lead to an increase in illegal trade to supply informal markets. However, it also brings opportunities for well-managed sustainable trade, which can bring significant benefits to people in poor, rural communities with few other livelihood options.
In our new paper in Nature Sustainability, we evaluate the potential risks and opportunities of Traditional Chinese Medicine expansion via the BRI with a focus on developing strategies for well-managed, sustainable wildlife trade chains. We outline four steps to achieve this and highlight the importance of Chinese leadership in this process, which aligns with the country’s goals of a green BRI. Countries including Nepal, Portugal, Poland and Zimbabwe have shown interest in working with China on developing these medicinal markets, and this diversity of countries will mean that risks and opportunities will vary greatly. The first step is therefore to work with cross-sector stakeholders in different countries to understand how Traditional Chinese Medicine markets will grow, and how this might affect supply of products made from wild species. This evidence base should then be used to develop targeted sustainability strategies, and identify priority species for which illegal and unsustainable trade may become a threat. Finally, species that can be sustainably sourced should be identified, with a focus on species and areas that present an opportunity for both conservation and poverty alleviation.
As the BRI enters its seventh year China is reaching out to more countries to cooperate on the marketing, registration and promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine products. There is now a critical short-term window for the identification of potential risks and opportunities, to ensure that sustainability is built into these markets from the start.
BEHIND THE RESEARCH
Whilst our conservation experience working on wildlife trade issues allowed us to consider in detail the potential risks that might arise from better connectivity and increased demand for TCM products, it was clear that to create meaningful impact we must get buy-in from relevant stakeholders. We secured an opportunistic meeting with representatives of the Chinese Association of TCM (CATCM) in Beijing, who work with the TCM industry, including on BRI expansion. Following discussions with CATCM we established that there was interest in developing more sustainable TCM supply-chains in BRI countries. However, we also established that the situation was going to be highly complex, with both supply and demand of TCM products likely to vary greatly between different countries and regions.
We invited authors from different disciplines and sectors to help develop a strategy for sustainability that could account for the complexity of BRI TCM markets. Our final author team includes academics and practitioners working on wildlife trade, livelihoods, and sustainable supply-chains for medicinal plants, as well as a policy-maker in China with experience of working on TCM and conservation. This collaboration resulted in a paper that lays out a realistic, four-step strategy for understanding the risks of BRI TCM and turning them into opportunities for sustainability. As the BRI enters its seventh year China is reaching out to more countries to cooperate on the marketing, registration and promotion of TCM products. There is now a critical short-term window for the identification of potential risks and opportunities, to ensure that sustainability is built into these markets from the start.
George Busby of Oxford University's Big Data Institute discusses his team's research into human genetic resistance to malaria and humanity's age-old struggle against the disease.
Humans have long been thwarted by ‘the fever’. References to malaria’s infamous febricity are found across antiquity, from writings by the four thousand-year-old Vedic sages of ancient India to the Greek physician Hippocrates. But the disease, caused by a group of parasites belonging to the Plasmodium genus, has troubled our ancestors and close relatives for much longer. A range of malaria species infect apes, monkeys and birds across the tropical world and we now know that about 50,000 years ago the ancestors of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for most of the current human burden of the disease, transformed from infecting gorillas to parasites that can infect us.
This means that throughout our history, wherever the ecological conditions have been able to support the mosquitoes that transmit the disease (including the marshes of Kent well into the 19th Century) we’ve been accompanied by the blood parasite which many believe to be one of the largest killers of people in human history. Reports of malaria killing half of the people who have ever lived are likely to be wide of the mark, however.
Given this shared history, you might expect humans to have evolved ways to neutralise the devastating impact of malaria. In evolutionary terms, the stakes are high - falciparum malaria is most deadly in young children - so there is a clear advantage to adapting to beat the parasite. And, because evolution works with new mutations in DNA that cause genes to work in new and different ways, adaptations that gave our ancestors one up against the parasites should be found across the human genome.
One such adaptation was discovered in the 1950 when Anthony Allison observed that there tended to be more people with sickle cell trait in malarial areas than places without the disease. Perhaps, he thought, because sickle cell trait affects the function of people’s blood cells, it afforded some sort of protection against malaria parasites, which thrive by infecting their host’s blood cells. This idea was a development of the ‘Malaria Hypothesis’, invented in 1948 by famed geneticist JBS Haldane, which proposed that certain human traits, particularly those involving blood groups, rise to high frequencies in some populations because they protect people from malaria. The relationship between sickle cell and malaria was soon confirmed when children in Uganda with sickle cell trait were shown to have fewer malaria parasites in their blood than those without the trait. Sickle cell trait is now known to be caused by a single letter change in the genetic code and is the canonical example of human evolution to infectious disease.
Epidemiological research over the intervening years has provided further evidence of human adaptation to malaria. But to go further and investigate the impact of malaria on our DNA requires large well curated datasets of DNA from across the tropics. And, because much of the burden of malaria is in Africa, whose populations are among the most genetically diverse on earth, we also need to think carefully about the statistical approaches that can tease out the real genetic signals from background variation.
Addressing old problems with new data
Big datasets and statistical methods have recently become available thanks to large long-term international collaborative efforts. One such collaboration is the Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network (MalariaGEN), a global network of malaria researchers that have worked together over the last 20 years to build the largest dataset of human genomes yet assembled for malaria research.
In a new paper using data from over 17,000 people from nine African countries, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea, we explored the extent to which adaptation to malaria has left footprints in the human genome. We used a method called Genome Wide Association Study (GWAS) which compares the DNA of people who have suffered from severe malaria with a control set of people who did not have the disease. The concept of a GWAS is straightforward: you scan these two groups of genomes to look for systematic differences in the genetic code between the malaria cases and the population controls. In practice though this is incredibly difficult as there are many places in the genome where these two groups might differ for reasons that have nothing to do with malaria. Nevertheless, with appropriate care, it is possible to identify regions of the genome where such differences occur, and these provide evidence of association with malaria susceptibility and hint that they might have played a role in evolution against malaria.
Blood cell evolution
Our GWAS found five regions of the genome with convincing evidence of association with malaria. Encouragingly, four of these regions contained genes involved with blood cell formation and function, which one might expect given that this is where the parasites attack. The most compelling case for genetic association with malaria is the gene controlling sickle cell trait, mentioned above. Individuals with this trait were up to ten times less likely to get malaria than those without. We found further evidence of protection from malaria at the gene that controls the main human ABO blood groups. Our analysis supports previous work that has shown that being blood group O in Africa offers some protection from severe malaria. But this association is complex, and strangely, you are at a greater risk of contracting severe malaria in Papua New Guinea with this blood group. Our analysis also corroborated our recent discovery that the individual’s carrying the Dantu blood group are protected from malaria. This blood group is rare however, and currently mainly found in people from East Africa, particularly Kenya.
Whilst we are confident that all five of these regions are associated with malaria, together they only account for about 10% of the genetic contribution to malaria susceptibility. Given the size of the dataset this a conundrum: it suggests that although we know that there are more genetic variants that influence an individual’s malaria susceptibility, we don’t know what they are. One possibility is that malaria susceptibility is controlled by many genetic variants spread across the whole genome, each with a small individual effect. This so-called polygenic model of adaptation is increasingly being used to explain predisposition to a number of diseases, and although our method is less good at picking up these types of signal, it’s an avenue for future work. Another possibility is that variation in especially complex regions of the genome, that are hard to access using our current data, is involved. Finally, it’s also possible that the parasite has itself evolved to overcome human adaptation in an evolutionary arms race. Parasites and humans may have been adapted to each other in slightly different ways in different parts of the world, so the mutations that help against the parasite in East Africa might not be so helpful in West Africa. Future work is planned to explore the fascinating idea of human-parasite coevolution.
So, have the loci we've discovered been driven to high frequency by natural selection, as Haldane suggested? Well yes and no. We found that these variants are systematically more likely to be found in individuals from sub-Saharan Africa than from regions where malaria has been less prevalent, showing how the genomes of Africans have been shaped through millennia of onslaught from the malaria parasite. But the variants themselves are quite different to each other, with some being very rare except in specific geographical locations, and some found at high frequency all over the globe. This suggests that further factors might be at play. Our paper highlights the potential advances in understanding that large, coordinated data sharing networks can provide in the battle against this most ancient foe.
The full paper, 'Insights into malaria susceptibility using genome-wide data on 17,000 individuals from Africa, Asia and Oceania,' can be read in Nature Communications.
By Kevin Grecksch and Jessica Holzhausen
Property rights are essential in western market societies and often taken for granted. They are ubiquitous and we do not question them. They are also a crucial element in the discussion of natural resource management.
In the context of climate change, understanding our concept of property rights, and how it influences our interpretation of who natural resources belong to, becomes increasingly important. At a basic level, property rights usually provide the owner exclusive, guaranteed rights, which always includes the notion of excludability. If an individual is the proprietor of a natural resource, this person determines access and allocation. This exclusive right is usually protected by the state. Problems stem from when property rights on resources cause inequalities of access to necessary resources like water, or are an obstacle for the successful implementation of climate adaptation measures.
Many would see property rights as ‘natural’ – yet they are far from natural. They express a social relationship that is very specific to western liberal democracies. For instance, many indigenous people have a concept of property and possession that does not serve the individual but society. It is often based on customary law with complex structures and rules to protect and regulate access to natural resources and the knowledge about it.
Property rights have been the subject of study of almost all well-known political theorists and philosophers. No matter if we talk about Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, property rights always form an intricate part of the social contract that defines the relationship between individuals and the state. For John Locke, a key justiﬁcation in favour of property rights is that the state guarantees the exclusiveness of a property and defends a person’s right to it. To this day Locke’s justification is a cornerstone of political and economic reasoning in the United States of America. To question property rights is to question the very reason of the state.
On the other hand, we find theorists like the French 19th century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He claimed that ‘property is robbery’ and argued that the property of the nobility and the clergy was based on faineance (i.e. indolence) because the wealth was not earned through labour, but instead stolen from those who laboured to create wealth. Or as the American unionist Bill Haywood said: The mine owners did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them!
In recent decades, property rights have been discussed mainly within a law and economics framework, thereby neglecting other perspectives. With environmental and societal challenges such as climate change reaching the top of political and social agendas, property rights may prove again to be a crucial issue. However, we find that the concept is still used in a simplistic manner. Good examples of this one-dimensional interpretation are The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative with focus on the economic beneﬁts of biodiversity, and the Nagoya Protocol on the fair and equitable sharing of beneﬁts arising from the utilisation of genetic resources. Both reduce the value of natural resources to its economic value and the introduction of property rights is seen as a panacea, thereby paying little or no attention to the social and cultural value of natural resources.
Hence, a new perspective, taking into account narratives surrounding property could provide useful insights and add to the mere administrative and regulatory perspective of property rights. Narratives are people’s accounts of events by which they or others were affected. They often come in the form of stories. In the context of property rights, narratives look at stories told about property rights, at how people see themselves and others in this social construct, at stereotypes, collective memory and how property inﬂuences identities – especially collective identities.
The UK has a complex, multilevel administration system where state legislation has not always addresses local necessities, and where local authorities have often felt let down by a central government perceived to be too far away to understand local problems. A good example occurred in Wales in the 1960s, when the Tryweryn Valley was flooded to create a reservoir to provide water for the city of Liverpool. This uprooted the community of Capel Celyn, where people lost their homes, their school and their church. Despite protests in Wales and the fact that every single Welsh MP voted against the scheme, it was overruled by central government and allowed for compulsory purchases of land. Liverpool City Council obtained authority through an Act of Parliament, thereby avoiding having to gain consent from Welsh planning authorities. Protests against the scheme were dramatic – protestors placed an explosive device at the base of an electrical transformer and microphone wires were cut during the opening ceremony. Even today, “Coﬁwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn) grafﬁti can be found on walls and bridges in the area upholding the narrative of an unjust scheme.
Hence, property rights may exist and they provide legal certainty, but they are not the end of the story. People have an attachment to nature, to places and often refer to ‘my river’ or ‘my forest’. Successful adaptation to climate change should take these narratives into account. In addition, people often have a deep knowledge about natural resources in their area and tapping into this knowledge could prove to be very useful, and also support acceptance and legitimacy of climate change adaptation measures.
Dr Kevin Grecksch is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law. Dr Jessica Holzhausen is a writer and historian.
Find out more about Oxford's environment research at the True Planet website.
Continuing our series celebrating ‘amazing people at Oxford who you should know about’, ScienceBlog talks to Dayne Beccano-Kelly, an electrophysiologist and a Career Development Fellow in Oxford Parkinson’s Disease Centre, in the department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University.
With more than ten years’ experience in the field, Dayne discusses his research using human neurones to improve treatments and the quality of life for people with neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. He also shares how he is aiming to tackle the lack of BAME leadership opportunities in STEM, by mentoring and inspiring black and minority ethnic scientists of tomorrow.
How would you describe your journey to Oxford?
I am from Cardiff originally, and took my undergraduate degree at Leeds University in bio-chemistry, as a route into medicine. But, after my first year, I changed my mind with a stint in research, as part of my year in industry.
Time and experience showed me that what I really wanted to do was science research, helping people, but being the one to garner the knowledge that would help. It is fun to be continually asking the questions, and driving the conversation on known scientific knowledge.
Was Oxford what you expected it to be?
Oxford is a melting pot of scientific ideas that are often brewing a stone’s throw away, which makes it easier to interact with other scientists and develop collaborations.
I have been here four years now and don’t feel marginalised at Oxford. I expected there to be a low number of BAME academics at Oxford, because there have been at every other institution.
Having lived in Vancouver directly before this, which I loved in a different way, I can feel the contrast. It’s great to be surrounded by so much history. Vancouver is younger than Arsenal FC, my football team.
What motivates you?
By understanding how Parkinson’s Disease works I am helping people every day. As a scientist, and on a personal level, that is one of the best things that we can do.
It is important to remember that there are people waiting for us to get this right. Meeting them patients as I/we do helps to consider them like members of my family. It makes you want to fight for them that little bit harder.
In a nutshell what is neuro electrophysiology?
Neurotransmitters are chemical messages that allow neurones to talk to one another. When received by a neuron the information is changed into and transmitted as an electrical current. It is this combination of chemical and electrical signal that allows us to move, think, talk remember and everything in between. Neurodegenerative disorders affects this communication by causing neurons to degenerate and die. In Parkinson’s disease (PD) it is a specific set of cells that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine which are under threat. These control goal directed movement and cognition and it is why we see the symptoms we do in PD as these neurones are no longer able to do their job.
How does your research support care improvements in this area?
My research focuses on converting adult human cells into stem cells, and then converting them into neurones so that we can test for changes in Parkinson’s Disease. The cells that we create are plugged into an open electrical circuit, which we use to measure how neurones talk to each other, via the chemical-electrical signals that I mentioned. I have focused my work on looking at the earliest possible changes we can see in this cross talk between neurones, and what this can tell us about what is going wrong in the condition. If we can understand this, we could begin to think of stopping the disorder in its earliest stages.
In the past this research has been conducted using animal cells, cell lines etc., but this is the first time we are able to use human neurones to investigate human disease in this way. Understanding these cell changes can help us to tailor medicines to better treat the condition.
How did you come to specialise in Parkinson’s research?
As a child I always wanted to be scientist, and naturally wanted to make people better. As a young boy, I apparently stood at the bottom of my arthritic grandfather’s bed, and said ‘I am going to fix you.’ So early on my path was set.
When I was studying at Leeds I was awarded a year in industry at the Mayo Clinic in America, and that sealed the deal. I had a great mentor there, the pathologist Dr. Dennis Dickson. His effervescence and passion for his work rubbed off on me and I just thought ‘man, this is what I want to do.’
My work there focused on Progressive Supranuclear Palsy – an atypical Parkinsonian disorder. I have worked on different neurodegenerative conditions throughout my career at different institutions in various parts of the world, including Scotland, Canada and the US.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned through your research?
As scientists we should just want to know the truth, however, not every scientist sees it that way and that baffles me. I heard a great quote from Prof. Diane Lipscombe at a conference I attended a few weeks ago, she said: “Always follow the data, it will always be more interesting than your imagination can ever generate.” I love that, I think it’s great to generate unexpected things; it’s another question to answer.
I also find it surprising and sad, that I have not encountered more black senior scientists in my career. I find that very jarring.
Has this lack of BAME mentoring opportunities affected your own career?
I’ve been driven enough to get to this stage by myself, but it’s an issue, It would have been nice to have a senior black individual that I could ask, ‘how did you do it? What were the things that you encountered? Was it the same as my experience, or am I just some kind of strange outlier?’
I work with black female and Asian team members, but I am the only black man, and have been in every place I have worked. I very rarely encounter another black male person – sometimes there are postdoctoral students, but they are few and far between.
I am at a point in my career where I want to reach PI level, in order to be a mentor and a leader to the next generation. I love teaching and want to start engaging with people like the British black academics, and teaching groups where there are more opportunities to mentor.
What do you think can be done to change this imbalance?
It is important for young BAME students to see role models as early in life as possible. I want to start programmes that engage them earlier, offer mentoring and introduce them to role models like them, as early as possible.
Many black families who have had senior generations encounter prejudice, preach that you must persevere and you will get a chance to show what you can do. My family was definitely one of those. However, there are a few that sometimes say that certain roles are not for us, and that if you try you will face discrimination. These are in the minority, but it does happen and is very damaging. I want people to see what I am doing, how I am doing it, and see that it isn’t not worthwhile.
What do awareness activities like Black History Month mean to you?
I’ve been really happy to see the University getting more involved in this. People take notice of Oxford, and, from my stand point, the more the University does, it can only be better for everybody.
There are lots of awareness activities throughout the year, a day here, a week here, and I am really glad that it’s a month. Right now we have to do this though, because we have to make people proud. But, you want to reach a stage where dedicating a month to it doesn’t make sense. Why limit it? Let’s celebrate all cultures, all year round.
Are there any things that Oxford as an institution could do to be more inclusive?
Athena Swan was first introduced to create parity in the field for women – as it should be. But, the equivalent (the Race equality Charter) and its awards have far less of a song and dance made about it. I would like to see more effort in this area.
I’m not saying that 50% of professors at Oxford should be black – that would be disproportionate, but there is a disparity between the number of BAME in Britain, and the numbers that enter University, and even more so the attrition of those doing STEM subjects at degree to those doing PhD or higher. It needs to be something that is spoken about more openly, more often and more loudly without shame and actively changed.
If it isn’t, then instead of waiting for it to be the general consensus, why not start the trend here? You’re Oxford. If you are going to use your clout for something, this would be great place to start.
Access in higher education is a very topical issue at the moment, do you have any ideas on what could improve the sector for BAME students
It’s important to keep the dialogue going and make your voice heard. The dialogue for our generation has to be, we need more senior black and Asian scientists.
I was reading about how ‘Stormzy effect’ is driving Cambridge access progress, which is a great message overall. But, it is not tenable to do this across the board. That’s why I am so passionate about encouraging BAME students in academia and doing so from an early age. The more of us there are, the more we can show that we are just as capable as anyone else. Over time there will be a generational shift, and people will just focus on the science, not the colour of your skin.
Has prejudice been a factor in your career?
I have encountered certain prejudices in my career – not at Oxford, but it has happened. People have made flippant comments about my benefiting from positive discrimination, things that shouldn’t be said to me, or to anyone in this decade.
As a black academic, sometimes when you talk about your experiences you get shot down for being over the top, or ‘always’ going on about race. When in actuality, it is the first time you have said anything.
Just because people cannot imagine it, or have not had that experience themselves, does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is a real thing.
Does this experience impact your approach to your work?
My colleagues and friends, would never expect anything less of me because of the colour of my skin. But I am sure there are people that do. I have been told in the street to go home, so I know they exist. I would be remiss if I didn’t have that consideration in my mind to try and change that, so the next generation don’t have to.
Andy Murray openly says that he doesn’t think of Serena Williams as anything more than a great tennis player, and a peer, rather than a female tennis player. That is the stage we have to get to. The task and achievement are the thing that is focussed on, not the gender or the race of the person doing it. It is something that can only come from the previous generation’s battle and fighting for that.
Have these experiences affected you personally?
I would be lying if I said no. Perception and bias are something that we are all prone to. If someone looks at me and makes an assumption, I probably do the same thing. But it is something we have to be aware of and try to make the change.
As a BAME individual you never know if people negatively respond to the colour of your skin, unless they outright say it, but I actively think about how I appear to others.
What motivates you?
I can only thank my family and my mum, for driving me forward. They instilled me with the confidence to succeed which has let me get where I am today. I am their project, they are the scientists.
Some of the stories that they have are just… I’ve experienced stuff, but I have never experienced that stuff. They raised me to always work twice as hard as anyone else, because you have to expect this behaviour, like the recent football game between England and Bulgaria. At times you despair, but I’m not going to lament it.
I just want to get high enough up the chain that I can pull others over the wall with me, if I start to berate and feel sorry for myself, I am not going to get there.
What is next for you?
Currently there is no known cure for any neurodegenerative disease. There are drugs that have been complete game changers, and have helped people to better cope with their disorder for a time. But sometimes medical trials on certain groups fail, and drugs are written off too early I believe.
I want to be involved in pushing forward a dialogue between academia, pharmaceuticals and the medical community. We have to be aware that the drugs we generate may only fit a subset of patients. Just because they don’t work for one group, does not mean they won’t for another.
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