Featured Scientist (V): Dr. Jagger Harvey

Dr. Jagger Harvey

Last week Dr. Jagger Harvey visited JIC from the one of a kind bioscience hub BecA (Biosciences for East and Central Africa). Jagger is half American, half Haitian and witnessed the massive disparity of the two countries throughout his youth. This inspired him to work with developing countries and use his skills to tackle hunger and poverty. However, instead of diving straight into applied sciences he decided to get a fundamental grounding in biosciences, first receiving his PhD from UC Davis. He then moved to The Sainsbury Laboratory, here in Norwich, to complete a postdoc with David Balcombe.

When Jagger joined the BecA Hub just 5 years ago he was one of three scientists on a small corridor of offices. Now BecA accommodates and funds 40 researchers spanning 18 countries of Africa as well as many more visiting scientists from all over the world. 

The countries involved in the BecA Hub

BecA is a shared agricultural research and biosciences platform that exists to increase access to affordable, world-class research facilities. The development of the facility has been project-driven. For example, Jagger began working with an international team on Aflatoxins – fungal produced Mycotoxins which are deadly in high doses. Aflatoxins are a big problem in Maize production across Kenya and Tanzania, especially if the kernels are not dried properly once harvested. With a massive injection of funds from the Australian government a platform for mycotoxin diagnostics was set up to facilitate this project. Along with a nutritional analysis platform which can provide full nutritional profiling of foods this facility now provides an invaluable resource for the whole region.

An important part of the hub is to provide quality training and support for scientists from all 18 countries. It has become an extremely successful and can have up to 1700 applications for 30 places available on a training course. The Hub also facilitates lasting collaborations between African scientists and internationally. One way that these collaborations are brought together is through connections workshops, which anyone can apply to attend if you have a project idea – something to keep it in mind if you would like to be part of this inspirational future for African science.

If you are interested in more information, you can find the BecA website here: http://hub.africabiosciences.org/ 

All images courtesy of africabiosciences.org

By Tilly Eldridge, a final year PhD student in the lab of Enrico Coen

Featured Scientist (IV): Greg Foot, Daredevil Science Presenter


_DSC6091This week’s featured scientist is the Daredevil Science Presenter, Greg Foot. Greg has been working in science communication for the past 10 years on TV, Radio and in live shows. You may have seen him on the BBC3 series Secrets of Everything, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, BBC Worldwide, Youtube’s Head Squeeze channel or in his live Daredevil Science Shows, but he also does a lot of work behind the scenes, researching, writing and developing shows.

Greg came to talk to us about Science Communication Careers and here are the answers to some of the questions we asked him:

What persuaded you to go into Science Communication?

A friend suggested at university that I become a Blue Peter presenter and it started out as a bit of a joke – but then I realised that it was something that I would enjoy doing so I started to get involved in things like radio, YouTube videos and science communication events at uni. By the time I finished my undergrad I was completely caught by science communication and went to Imperial College London to do a Masters in Science Communication. Funnily enough, it is only now after 10 years of working in science communication that I finally get to appear on Blue Peter!

Did you have a big break in your career, or did you simply work your way up the ladder?

I spent a lot of time exploring the opportunities available and contacting as many people as I could. Every so often one of the feelers I put out was successful. Looking back each of these successes can be seen as a lucky break, which all add up to where I am now. But the TV world especially is a ladder which it takes time and dedication to climb.

How do you talk about science and your work without making it boring to a non-scientific audience?

You need to catch the attention of your audience and peak their interest. Make the science mean something to them and relate it to their daily life. The key is to “find your hook” for your research to draw them in. Take a few steps back and look at how your work applies in the broader scheme of things. You also need to be aware that you are the expert, and they don’t know as much as you about the subject. Start slowly and build up your story step by step – the listener needs to be able to “see” the last step to not feel lost.

As a Freelance Science Communicator how do you manage your time and what do you spend your time doing?

If you don’t have many projects running, you spend your time finding the work, by researching and contacting people. Once you have several projects on the go, you have to be able to juggle them all and manage your time in a similar way to a PhD student does. I need to look at what the final product will be, such as a live show, and then plan backwards from there, writing, discussions over email, and researching and finding props and experiments to show. I also try to have time to catch up with friends in there somewhere!

How do you decide what subjects to present in your live shows?

The best thing to do is talk about something you are passionate about, and then think about how you can interest the audience and enthuse them. For example, I am keen on extreme sports, so I started with a surfboard- I thought that it would be fun to get a volunteer to get up on stage and try out surfing. From that I used surfing to introduce a lot of scientific concepts, like how far the wave will have travelled until it gets to you and the physics behind balancing. Since then I have hosted outdoor live shows about extreme sports with DJs, BMX riders and free running. I also try to make sure that I have something that explodes too!

Greg’s Top Tips:

  1. Contacts, contacts, contacts– contact everyone and anyone in the area you are interested, get your name out there, it’s even better if you can meet up with people face-to-face.
  2. Online– use online media- YouTube, Podcast, Blogs, Twitter- get you name out there, let people know what you can do!
  3. Brand– make yourself stand out and recognisable by uniforming your twitter, YouTube, blog, etc.
  4. Skills– Build them up and take advantage of what you have available – make videos (even just on your phone with a friend and post them online), do radio slots, write and give talks at schools. The more skills you can show that you have the better.
  5. Motivate– one of the most rewarding things is encouraging people to have an interest in science, so go into schools to give talks, make science interesting. Did you know that most 10-12 year olds have an interest in science but the number of students interested in science drops massively by the time they are 18? If you can show them what science can do or where it can take you fewer students would lose interest.
  6. Find what you love– try out all the different areas, ask for work placements and then follow the area you enjoy- not everyone who works in TV has to end up on screen!

Find out more about what Greg Foot does here:



By Izzy Webb – a second year PhD student in the lab of Phil Poole, and Annis Richardson – a third year PhD student in the lab of Enrico Coen

All photos courtesy of Andrew Davis (JIC)

Featured Scientist (III): Prof Hidde Ploegh

Friday the 22nd of November’s Friday seminar at the John Innes Centre took on a distinctly non-plant science flavour as Professor Hidde Ploegh, of the Broad Institute, delivered his seminar on host-pathogen interactions. We’re not exactly strangers to pathology here in Norwich, but rather than striving to mitigate the effects of crop pathogens like many of the researchers on the NRP, Hidde’s group is interested in human disease.

It became increasingly apparent throughout the seminar, and as lunch progressed, that Hidde is a great advocate of developing your own tools to study the problem at hand, as evidenced by his appropriation of somatic cell nuclear transfer technology to generate novel mouse models with immune cells against several important viruses and his use of bacterial sortase proteins as a method by which to study the ubiquitin mediated degradation of proteins at the proteasome. His body of work (which includes contributions to over 400 academic papers) has left us with an understanding of how the Major Histocompatibility Complex functions and how its products get to where they need to be and how are cells are able to detect invaders through the perception of antigens and mount a response.

Professor Hidde Ploegh (image courtesy of http://wi.mit.edu)

Despite there being only three students at lunch with Hidde, conversation flowed quite freely and there was little need to ask any of the questions that have appeared in previous editions of this feature; he provided answers to them pretty naturally as we talked.

One of the first topics to come up was advice that he would offer to students and early career researchers in general. It should come as no surprise that the first words to exit his mouth were “Develop your own toolbox.” Hidde was adamant that this is the best way to ensure the relevance of your science and minimise the risk of being in direct competition with another group. Also adding “If you’re just working with things you can order from a catalogue, you’re only going for the low-hanging fruit and there’s probably someone else out there doing the same thing as you.” Away from advice on how to excel at the bench, Hidde also had some thoughts on the politics of science when it comes to rising through the ranks, stating that “Political game-playing is not something I can say I’ve ever experienced in my career. Some people are better at it than others and extroverts may have a better chance than introverts at interviews purely because communication is so important in science. If you’re worried about this sort of thing I’d urge you not to be. Just stay above it and make sure your science is interesting to people, that’s all you should focus on.” As a final vignette on advice for those starting out their careers, Hidde had this to offer: “Don’t always tell your advisor about that risky experiment you want to try. We like to be kept in the loop most of the time, but the wheels really start turning when you come to us and say ‘Look at this cool result I’ve got…’.” *

On Hidde’s route to becoming a project leader; well, there’s not a lot to say. Those in attendance at the seminar will be aware that he secured a faculty position straight out of graduate school. When asked “How on Earth did that happen?” Hidde provided the following explanation “I just got lucky I suppose. My PhD thesis was very interesting to the right people and very novel at the time. There was a position available and I took it. These sorts of opportunities are becoming more available today, particularly at MIT, Stanford and the University of California. I see no issue with not having done a post-doc. It’s like finding the right partner and saying ‘No, I can’t be with you now, I have to try out a few other people first.’ If the topic of your thesis is something you’re capable of pursuing further than I see no reason why you shouldn’t do that just so you can spend time in a few other labs.”

We didn’t get round to asking what Hidde would do if he hadn’t become a scientist but we did discuss which areas of science he thinks he may have ended up in if he could start over again. What emerged was a very pleasant surprise: using chemistry to synthesise plant secondary metabolites for medicinal purposes on an industrial scale!

Other topics discussed were the various emerging genome editing technologies, in  particular the intellectual property minefields surrounding them and how they could circumvent current EU regulations on GMOs, how great it is to work as an academic in the Boston area and how he’d love to know if plant pathogen effector proteins were able to have any effect on animal or fungal cells.

By Ben Hall – a second year PhD student in Mark Banfield’s group.

*The author accepts no responsibility for any ludicrously ambitious experiments attempted by students in the aftermath of this blog, regardless of outcome.

Featured Scientist (II): Prof Kazuki Saito

We were fortunate to have Professor Kazuki Saito, the deputy director of the RIKEN Plant Science Center, and Group director of the Metabolomic Function research group, give a seminar on his work in plant metabolomics at the John Innes Centre. Professor Saito is a leading scientist in the area of metabolomics based functional genomics. The ‘-omics’ technologies are a dominant force in science. They developed as a result of the adaptation of high-throughput technologies to measuring biological samples, together with the ability to effectively store all the data accumulated. Metabolomics is the field of science which identifies all the metabolites (small molecules) within a cell, tissue or biological species, and thereby provides its chemical fingerprint. Functional genomics tries to take the wealth of sequence data, gene expression data (transcriptomics), and protein expression data (proteomics) of a biological sample that is available to understand gene and network function at a holistic level. By combining metabolomics and functional genomics, it is possible to see how changes in gene and protein levels may impact the chemical fingerprint of a biological sample. In doing so this can lead to the identification of novel genes that produce interesting metabolites, as well as an overarching appreciation of how metabolic networks are regulated.

During the student lunch we discussed developments in the field of plant secondary metabolism, where Prof Saito thought key breakthroughs would be in metabolomics, as well as the technological advances in this field. We were also able to discuss the opportunities for post-doctoral fellows in Japan, and Prof Saito emphasised the multi-cultural nature of the RIKEN institute.

Prof Kazuki Saito (image courtesy of http://www.metabolomicssociety.org)

Prof Kazuki Saito (image courtesy of www.metabolomicssociety.org)

 Can you give me 3 words that best describe your work

If you ask me the interest of my work, I would say ‘plant chemical diversity’

If you weren’t a scientist what would you be?

An archaeologist, which was my dream when I was a kid.

Where have you studied/countries you have lived in?

Japan and Belgium.

What was your route to project leader?

My route is one of the typical ways for a natural scientific scholar in Japan. After obtaining a Ph. D., I served as a research associate in two Universities (similar to post-doc level), trained in a foreign country (Belgium) as a visiting fellow (post-doc), I went back to a Japanese university as a faculty member, and then climbed positions, from lecturer, associate professor to full professor and group director.

Which part of your work are you most proud of?

I am proud that we could show, for the first time, the proof-of-concept for functional genomics by integration of transcriptomics and metabolomics in plants. In fact, a series of these papers (PNAS, 101, 10205 (2004), Plant J., 42, 218 (2005), JBC, 280, 25590 (2005), PNAS, 104, 6478 (2007)) are highly cited. In older days, the very first molecular cloning of cysteine synthase from plants (PNAS, 89, 8078 (1992)), which was actually the first molecular cloning of genes in sulfur metabolism, is one of my proudest works.

 What was your “big break” career-wise?

In 1987, I had a big chance to join the lab of Prof. Marc Van Montagu in Ghent, Belgium. Until that time, I had no experience of plant molecular biology at all and had only been experienced in biochemistry and bioorganic chemistry, spanning plants, microorganisms and animals. However, before choosing my stay away from a University in Japan for a year, I was fully convinced that I had to be involved in molecular biology of plant secondary metabolism, which had never been developed yet. Therefore, I was very much eager to join to Marc’s lab, and luckily though the connection of my supervisor I could finally join his group in Ghent (thanks Marc!). This was really a big break for my career. Since then I have been able pave the way for my own research, on which I am still working and will pursue in future as well.

 What’s the best advice you would give to an early career scientist

Have a dream – organize yourself – work hard – stay on target – enjoy yourself –keep the faith

by Richard Payne – a second year PhD student in the lab of Prof Sarah O’Connor

Featured Scientist (I): Prof Stephan Grill

One of the aspects that I enjoy the most as a PhD student is the Friday seminar.  This weekly seminar, organized by the JIC, is given by top scientists in research, from all over the world, and is open to the scientific community (see details here): http://www.jic.ac.uk/corporate/search/lectures.asp

As students, we have the opportunity not only to attend the lecture, but also to attend a lunch with the speaker and discuss some general or particular topics in a very informal way. It is very nice to find out more about details of the talk, topics that were not included in  the seminar, the tricks and art of a particular technique, career advice…and, in short, have the opportunity to discuss any topic!

In case you miss the Friday seminar, you can always obtain the recorded version in the library, but, what if you miss the student lunch? The idea of this section is to share with other students the ideas exchanged in the lunch, via a short interview with the scientists that visit JIC.

Stephan Grill [grill@mpi-cbg.de]

It was great to speak with Prof Stephan Grill during the student lunch. I found it very interesting to know about the dynamic actomyosin cytoskeleton in animals and its role in morphogenesis.

Prof Stephan Grill. Image courtesy of www.mpi-cbg.de

Prof Stephan Grill. Image courtesy of http://www.mpi-cbg.de

Prof. Stephan Grill has a multidisciplinary group including people with different research backgrounds. During the conversation we touched on a very important topic, about the challenges associated with leading and belonging to an interdisciplinary team. The time flew! And he needed to catch the train to get on time to the airport, but he kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions (email from Heathrow!).

  • What is the most challenging aspect that you face having half experimental and half theoretical backgrounds in your team?

To make sure the theorists and the experimentalists keep talking to each other. 

  • Regarding the interdisciplinary research, do you have any advice to students that could help us to fill the gap between areas?

You have to avoid being a “Jack of all trades and a master of none”. That’s difficult. So become a master of one trade and learn to communicate with the masters if the other trade, and, most importantly, understand what they can do. 

  • Generally speaking, what advice would you give to an early researcher (PhD student) for success in academia?

Find out which scientific question keeps you up at night. That’s what drives you through the valleys and tough periods. 

  • Finally, could you summarize your work with 4 keywords?

What does Actomyosin do?

by Yara Sanchez-Corrales – a fourth year PhD jointly supervised by Dr Veronica Grieneisen and Prof. Enrico Coen.