Well color me purple, I won! Not sure why - the others were fab - but thanks for the votes! Now for a holiday...
Favourite Thing: Beans on toast. Oh, favourite thing in science! Seeing how scientists from different backgrounds can come together to discover and create something truly innovative! It’s at these boundaries between areas of expertise that the sparks really fly.
Pilgrim Upper School, Bedford (1979 – 1984) – sadly closed now.
University of Birmingham (1984 – 1987), studying Physics. Cambridge University (1989 – 1992) – doing a PhD in Physics
Severn Trent Water (learning how to manage a sewage works, amongst other things), 1987 – 1989; The Health and Safety Laboratory (part of the Health and Safety Executive), 1992 – 2000; The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (in the US), 2000 – 2005; The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (also in the US), 2005 – 2010. I also used to work at Boots, but I guess that doesn’t count.
University of Michigan, USA
I direct the Risk Science Center in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, which is a research center studying how substances potentially cause harm, and how they can be used safely.
Me and my work
I help people make science-informed decisions about stuff that affects them.
I started life as a physicist (in the UK); got involved in research measuring how much dust people inhale in factories – and how to avoid inhaling the harmful stuff; moved into studying the safety of nanotechnology (nano what?!) – which led to working with people at a reasonably high level in the US government; ended up leaving research to work full time helping politicians, business people, journalists and all sorts of other people make sense of new technologies like nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering – and how to develop them safely; and now I’m at the University of Michigan in the US, directing a research centre that focuses on the science of understanding and avoiding how substances harm people.
In other words, I’m a Jack of all trades who uses science to help people make informed decisions, but I’m most definitely a master of none!
The area of science I have done most real research in is aerosol science – which is all about understanding how fine particles suspended in air behave, and how they can be measured and controlled. I started my research career using electron microscopes to study incredibly small particles – just a few tens of atoms across. And as a result I have always had a soft spot for electron microscopy – even though I probably couldn’t “drive” today’s highly complex instruments. (When I was doing my PhD, it used to take people a couple of years to get comfortable running the microscopes we were using – they weren’t easy beasts to handle!).
These days I find myself talking about a huge range of science issues. Most recently, it’s been the creation of the first living organism based on a completely manmade genome – which is rather bizarre, as I dropped biology after my GCSE’s!
I also blog about science and emerging technologies – you can check out what I’m writing about (including I’m A Scientist) at 2020 Science
My Typical Day
Checking email, talking with interesting people, drinking lots of coffee, wasting time on Twitter, occasionally doing some real work.
My day varies according to whether I am working from home, in the office or off traveling somewhere. At home, I’ll typically get up early, check my email and put a cup of tea on. Then when I have walked the dog I will begin working through the day’s business – which may include reading about the latest research (and science news), working on a talk I’ve been asked to give, writing a paper or book chapter, making sure everything’s running smoothly at the Risk Science Center that I direct, and working (usually via email) with other scientists on different research projects (my contribution is usually intellectual rather than practical these days I’m afraid). On top of that, I sometimes handle calls from journalists and others wanting to know about new developments in science and technology, and what the implications are. This can be tough, but it can also be fun – especially radio interviews.
When I’m traveling, it sometimes seems that I continue to do all of this (apart from walking the dog), on top of spending the day either in airports, on planes or in meetings. I actually quite like the traveling – which I do a lot of (apparently I’ve been on the road for 50 days this year already!). It gives me the chance to catch up with whatever I’m reading (usually nothing to do with science) and listen to music. But it is tiring. Then there are the meetings. Some are really enjoyable – like when I am working with other scientists and we are doing stuff that might well make a difference – I helped draft a report that went straight up to President Obama a couple of months ago, which was rather cool. Others are – quite frankly – tedious. Especially when I realize that I still have to do all that other stuff after the meeting’s finished.
What I'd do with the money
Send each class in the Silicon Zone a copy of a fab book – “No Small Matter” by Felice Frankel and George Whitesides.
I’m not sure this is a legit use of the prize money, but I love this book! It’s easy to read. It has lots of big, glossy pictures. It’s not too long. But most importantly, it’s written with soul. And it shows how science and art compliment each other.
George Whitesides is a brilliant chemist – you can Google him. But his writing about science is more like poetry – and his words come alive when they are coupled with Felice Frankel’s photos. And that’s why this book is so good and so important – it gives you a glimpse into the heart and soul of someone who loves science, but who also loves life.
You can check out excerpts from the book here.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Overworked, underpaid, happy.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
The Portico Quartet at the moment… does that count?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Traveling in India.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A sharper mind, a better memory, and an aptitude with languages.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A physicist! Boring I know, but it was the only thing I was any good at!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Me? Noooo. Fortunately I reckon my old teachers are all retired now, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Not sure… finding a new way to interpret old data on deaths that occurred in a famous 1950’s London smog was pretty good.
Tell us a joke.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was duct-taped to the squirrel. (Shamelessly plagiarized from a good friend!)