Anyone want to learn about crystals? : )
Favourite Thing: I love to solve problems (especially by using aluminium foil and tape), and teach other students how to do the same!
St Clare’s College (ACT)
Australian National University
Brumbys (the bakery), tutor for maths/science/English students, freelance science writer
ANU, I’m going to start my PhD here next year! (Suggestions for my project are welcomed…)
I’m a ‘techical assistant’ at the Research School of Chemistry, ANU, also a freelance science writer (including work for CSIRO’s The Helix) and science sub-editor for the ANU newspaper.
Me and my work
I’m a protein crystallographer in training! We try to figure out how enzymes work by building computer models of them.
I’ve been working in a biochemistry lab at the Australian National University (ANU) for just over a year now!
In our research group, we look at how enzymes work and how we can use them to do chemistry for us. Enzymes are natural ‘catalysts’; they make chemical reactions easier to do. Our bodies use heaps of different enzymes to do all the chemistry needed to keep us alive.
(If you’re interested in reading more about my group, we have a new blog! Our group logo is a rhino-eagle, but I don’t think our boss knows that yet…)
My work focuses on the evolution of a particular enzyme. Enzymes are proteins, and proteins are coded for in a creature’s genetic material, so when the creature evolves, the enzyme can change too! I use X-ray crystallography to look at protein crystals, and build 3D computer models of them. From these models, we can figure out what parts of the enzyme are changing during the evolution.
If we learn more about how enzymes evolve, we can design better enzymes to help in bioremediation (repairing the environment after it’s been polluted) or in making new molecules for medicines or materials!
I recently won an award. Or, at least, I found an award taped to my bench…
Looks legit, hey?
My Typical Day
Usually, my day involves purifying protein collected from bacteria, and trying to grow lovely crystals!
Firstly, my day almost always involves coffee and angry debates about music (we finally got a stereo put in the lab!)
In terms of work, my goal is always to grow protein crystals, but there are a lot of steps leading up to that. For protein crystals to grow, the protein needs to be VERY pure, so we have to remove any other junk that came out of the bacteria we grew the protein in.
How pretty are protein crystals?? They’re really tiny, too. The big circle in this picture is about a millimetre across.
My day normally involves wrestling with machines: centrifuges to spin bacterial cells into big clumps so we can collect the protein, FPLC machines (which stands for Fast Protein Liquid Chromatography) which can separate my protein from all the other stuff in the bacterial cells, and then the X-ray machine, which collects information about any crystals that I grow.
If I’ve got some data from the X-ray machine, I can spend a nice relaxing day sitting at my computer with my iPod going, and running lots of different programs to turn the X-ray data into my 3D model. They end up looking like this:
The rainbow ribbon is the protein-chain, and the little red dots are water molecules.
Once a week, I help out with teaching other students how to use a lab. We do some great experiments (extracting caffeine from coffee, or making soap, or finding out how much vitamin C is in Homebrand orange juice), and it’s definitely the most fun I have at work.
I work with a pretty great bunch of people. At the moment, we’re trying to save enough money to buy a Success-Gong. If you do something good in lab, you get to hit the gong so everyone knows you got good results… We’re almost at our target.
What I'd do with the money
Real lab time for more students!
I’d love to use the money to run more programs at the ANU that let students from highschool and college come into the lab and do some experiments.
The best way to learn about how scientists spend their time is to actually try it yourself! ANU has some outreach programs already, but I’d really like to see even more students get the opportunity to experience real lab work. In particular, I think some cool biochemistry demonstrations could be great (like growing lysozyme crystals, just check out how awesome they look, and they don’t even take too long to make!)
School students would get to meet ANU chemistry students of different ages (from undergraduate studies right up to PhD students) and talk to them about how they got into chemistry, what they like about it, maybe even which lecturers are the friendliest!
I’m still in conversation with the people running these sorts of events abut what we could do, so I’ll update this field as I get more information.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Ginger, funny, enthusiastic
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Blur, or any 90s rock/pop bands actually. (I am music-crazy, can I write five paragraphs about indie-rock here please??)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
In my first year at uni, we ran a giant game of tag called Humans vs Zombies. It was insane! Over 300 people running around with nerf guns…
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
For myself and my family to always be healthy, to be successful at things I try hard at, and to be a panelist on QI and be friends with Stephen Fry…
What did you want to be after you left school?
An astronomer or physicist. I think I wanted to build a time-machine.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Not really, I was quite shy and pretty scared of getting in trouble.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
The first time I grew some nice-quality crystals was amazing; my boss high-fived me!
Tell us a joke.
There are two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says “who’s driving this thing??”
What is ‘sports’…? (Actually, I like watching football (the soccer-kind) but I don’t follow it)