I'm back in, still answering questions :)
Favourite Thing: Looking at atoms!
I went to high-school in Portugal (1984-1991), then did Chemical Engineering at the Technical University of Lisbon (1991-1997) and got a PhD in Chemistry at Reading University (2000-2003).
PhD in Chemistry
I’ve had part-time jobs at a library organising books; at a football stadium working in a bar. As a scientist I have worked in France and as a Lecturer in the UK.
Lecturer & Instrument Scientist
Keele University (UK) & Institut Laue Langevin (France)
Me and my work
I use crystals as an amplifier – they shout out their atomic secrets to me.
Just like we use X-rays to look inside the human body, I use beams that let me probe molecules that are too small for us to see with normal light. Seeing molecules is cool of course, but my goal is to find the structure and shape of molecules so I can understand how they work in Biology, how they react to different things. We call this Structural Biology. Crystallographers use crystals as their samples (like the crystals of table salt, or sugar, but these are made of proteins or nucleic acids).
Lately I became very interested in studies related to food, like the proteins that keep milk stable while it keeps all the calcium we need (even when we warm it up just before we dunk our biscuits in!). I also study proteins from tropical plants that are extremely sweet. They are so sweet, that 1kg (about 0.15stones) of it corresponds to 3tons (over 400 stones) of sugar! This may not sound very appetising, but we have all probably eaten it as an ingredient in our food…
My Typical Day
The one typical thing about my days is time flying.
My typical day is all about multitasking. My job is split between the UK where I teach, and France where I do research.
At Keele University you will most likely find me in a room delivering a lecture to my students, or in the lab helping them with practical work. I find teaching a fascinating challenge that never gets boring: with technology booming and students always changing, I too have to constantly adapt and learn with them. Podcasts is their latest thing, and some even record my lectures so they can play it again on their mobiles when revising.
In Grenoble you can find me in the lab worrying about preparing fragile, short-lived crystals of biological molecules: there is no recipe that works for all, so some people call crystallisation an art (when it works), some call it black magic (when the competition does it first). You may find me in my crowded office writing a paper to publish results, chatting to students through Skype, or marking their tests while munching a ginger biscuit (I bring them from the UK because it is hard to find them in France).
I also help scientists from all over the world who come here for experiments. In fact, that is where you will often find me, in restricted access areas close to the reactor, where the neutron beams can be used for Science and one feels at the center of the world, so close to those flying atomic particles.
What I'd do with the money
I would take the Crystallographic Zone adventure to your doorstep.
I would use the money to make a podcast that can inspire students beyond the current event. I will get myself a decent microphone and recorder, and come find students (quite possibly some of those I spoke to during the live chats): they will be the stars on my very first podcast(s) on crystallography and science.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, Optimist, Chocoholic
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
A ghost party in Sweden
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Made crystals that nobody can reproduce
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I was ambitious and wanted to do something that I saw as difficult and impressive
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Health love and family
Tell us a joke.
I wanted to be a singer when I was a child. When you hear my voice you will understand why that is so funny…
I work at the European Photon and Neutron (EPN) campus, at the heart of the Alps, where scientists from all over the world come to use very intense beams produced by a synchrotron (X-rays) and a nuclear reactor (neutrons). You can find photos and videos of the site here: http://www.ill.eu/about/movies/ill-virtual-tour-2012/.
I study crystals so I spend considerable time trying to convince biological molecules to crystallise. These crystals fill my day with beauty, such as these DNA ones:
I then shoot neutrons at crystals: they scatter the beam with different strength in different directions, producing an image that I record. The images look like this:
These images are like a fingerprint of the structure inside the crystals, it is possible to trace back the structure in the crystal, such as the molecule drawn below. It is a protein (one of the sweetest compounds known to man) called thaumatin – surrounded by water molecules:
One of the most satisfying parts of my work is to help students learn. Below are photos of 2 students from Keele University that came to Grenoble to work with me: the first is Emily Shannon preparing to beam her samples with X-rays at the synchrotron during her summer training:
This is Samuel Lenton, my PhD student preparing to shoot neutrons on his samples!