Farringdon Community Sports College 2002-2007 (GCSEs), City of Sunderland College 2007-2009 (A Levels), University of Leeds 2009-2012 (BSc), John Innes Centre 2012-present (PhD)
BSc Biology (1st Class)
I’ve worked as a research intern at my old university (Leeds) and at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany. Jobs I’ve done to pay my way through university include security at Headingley Stadium in Leeds, writing content for commerical websites and, currently, working as a ‘warden’ at the University of East Anglia.
John Innes Centre
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love finding out new things and fitting them in to existing models of how things work. I think that’s something all scientists share.
I study a microorganism that infects, and totally destroys, potato and tomato plants.
I work on a really important organism called Phytophthora infestans, which is what caused the Irish Potato Famine many years ago. It’s still a big problem for farmers today and makes food more expensive in the supermarkets! It completely devastates the plants it infects and spreads very quickly. Its name ‘Phytophthora‘ is even Greek for ‘Plant Destroyer’.
What I’m trying to understand is how Phytophthora is able to stop the plant’s natural immune system from defending itself from attack. In the laboratory I work in, one of the most important tools we use is X-Ray crystallography to understand the structure of important molecules. We believe that by studying the structure of molecules that Phytophthora produces, and by studying the structure of the molecules in the plant they are targeting, we will be able to get a better understanding of how this devastating disease is able to cause us so many problems.
My Typical Day
I mutate genes, clone them into bacteria then infect plants with them.
A day in the life of Ben Hall:
I get up somewhere between 07.30 and 08.00. It only takes me five minutes to cycle to work so I don’t need to be up very early. I have breakfast and a cup of coffee (this is very important, I’m more or less fuelled by caffeine) then shower before setting off for work.
I get in for about 09.00 and one of the first things I do is check our internal website for any interesting seminars that day. One of the real perks of working at a world leading institute is that on any day of the week you can go and hear someone talking about truly great science. I’m always astonished at the work people are doing around the site. If I see something interesting, I’ll do my best to make time to go and see it.
The next thing I’ll do is have a look at my to do list. I typically write one on Sunday evening for the week ahead. I do my best to stick to it. However, science can be cruel and plans can go out of the window. The list helps me decide what needs to be done.
Ok, my list tells me that today I’ve planned to check if two proteins I’ve taken out of plant leaf tissue interact and also that I need to transfer some genes I’ve altered into more plants. So before lunch I know I need to prepare my plant-infecting bacteria for the afternoon. To do this I’ll bathe them in a mixture of chemicals which make them more likely to transfer their genes into the plants own DNA. For now I can forget about this and leave them on my work bench for a few hours.
Now onto the proteins I’ve extracted from the plant tissue. The previous day I’ll have separated out all of the proteins that are in the plant cells and attached them to a thin membrane. I’ll collect this membrane in the morning and start bathing it in molecules which stick to the proteins I’m interested in and give off a signal I can detect, such as fluoresence. I’ll use several different ‘sticky’ molecules in order to figure out whether or not the proteins are interacting with each other. This takes up pretty much a full day.
At about 12.30 I go for lunch. I usually sit with the other PhD students who all work in different labs to me. It’s good to be able to catch up with what they’re doing at work and to talk about any problems that you’re having. We all come from different backgrounds but get along really well.
After lunch my plant-infecting bacteria should be ready to go. So I take them down to the glasshouses and use a syringe without the needle attached to force them into the plant leaves. This can take 10 minutes or several hours depending on how many plants I need to infect. While I’m down there, I may need to collect leaves that I’d previously infected. To do this, I simply cut them off with scissors before freezing them in liquid nitrogen, which is -196 degrees centigrade!
When I get back from the greenhouses I’ll keep going with my ‘sticky’ molecules and membranes. At some point in the afternoon I’ll grab a coffee, check my e-mails and maybe have a quick look at Twitter.
For the rest of the day I could be preparing bacteria for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Purifying DNA from bacteria and shuffling it into new bacteria. Taking photos of plants that are reacting in an interesting way to the genes I’ve inserted or any number of other things like reading about the work other scientists have done, writing about my own work or discussing plans for experiments with my boss.
I generally leave work at some point between 17.30 and 20.00 and cycle straight to the gym or Rugby training. When I’m home I sometimes have more work to do but try my best to avoid taking work home. I’ll relax by reading (currently enjoying Sherlock Holmes), learning German or going to the pub with friends.
What I'd do with the prize money
Donate it to a charity which provides access to practical science lessons for kids in developing countries.
In our schools in Britain, we take it for granted that we’ll enjoy regular practical lessons in well equipped science labs. In many countries around the world, this isn’t the case. Loads of kids won’t have even seen a microscope by the time they come to sit their A-Level exams and, as a result, very few children go on to pass their science exams and study a science subject at university. I honestly believe that this is one of the biggest barriers to developing nations dragging themselves out of poverty.
We can continue to throw money at projects to buy food and clean water but the reality is that it is far better to help a country become more self-sufficient. The key to doing this is education and innovation. Developing nations need to train more people with the technical skills to really change the situation they find themselves born into! But how to do this when schools don’t even have access to basic science equipment?
A charity called TASTE (The African Science Truck Experience) has what I believe is a sensible solution. Rather than cherry picking schools to buy lab equipment for, TASTE takes the show on the road with its own mobile school science lab which visits more than 10 schools across Uganda on a regular basis. The money would buy new equipment, replace broken or worn out equipment or even help go toward another science truck to service even more schools!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Energetic, Thoughtful, Tireless
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
In my previous life as a developmental biologist I mapped out all of the proteins a molecule important for flower development interacts with. Hopefully this will be published soon, I’m quite proud of it.
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
It’s difficult to say really. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t interested in the natural world. I vividly remember being about seven years old and setting up an experiment at home to see which types of bread were best for growing mold and at which temperature. So I’d have to say my parents for encouraging my curiosity.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
More than I’d dare let my parents know.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
Corned beef and potato pie. Apple and rhubarb crumble for pudding.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Surfing or jetskiing, one of those two.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1 – To be successful in my future career, hopefully as a scientist. 2 – To have a healthy work/life balance so I’m able to enjoy friends and family as much as I enjoy my job and so that I don’t stop enjoying my job. 3 – To be alive to see Sunderland AFC win the premiership!
Tell us a joke.
Why won’t you find aspirin in the jungle? Because the parrots-eat-’em-all.