Photo:

Leo Garcia

Very happy to be in the final - I hope that everyone has enjoyed taking part!

Favourite Thing: Having my opinions challenged by experts.

My CV

School:

Kings Monkton, Cardiff

University:

University of Wales, Swansea (big up Swansea)

Work History:

Nowhere. Well, almost nowhere. I worked (read: ‘worked’) for a small record and video shop in Swansea for literally a few weeks. When they stopped phoning me to tell me my hours, I assumed I didn’t need to come in any more.

Employer:

The Institute of Cancer Research

Current Job:

PhD student. I’m on the scientific ladder, and I’ve got my sights on the dizzy heights of scientific stardom.

Me and my work

I live in London and research new ways of diagnosing cancer

More about me:

I’m 24 and I’ve lived in London for the last 4 years with my girlfriend Hannah. Hannah works in a city farm, so I have ‘behind the scenes’ access to hens. We’ve been going out for nearly seven years! We live with a cat, a snake and a hamster. Science and music are my two main interests. That isn’t Hannah in my photo. I’m the one on the right.

I have played the guitar for a long time, and in university I played some small coffee shop-type gigs with my percussionist friend Andy, who hates me so much he moved to Australia. We would cover such classics as the Futurama theme tune and an acoustic version of Dillinger Escape Plan’s “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants“. And of course, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – possibly my favourite song ever.

I really love music and if I wasn’t a scientist, I’d want to be involved in music. I thought about going into music journalism (in fact, if I hadn’t got the job doing my PhD, I was all lined up to do a short internship at the music magazine Terrorizer – I wonder what would have happened if I had done that instead?), and I used to do some DJ-ing at my university club. I had a lot of fun doing it, and by DJ-ing I mean playing one record after another, perhaps with some overlap between the outro and the intro, if you’re lucky. I can clear a dancefloor like that.

My favourite singer is Bob Dylan. I can’t think of any other artist who I have listened to so consistently. Then the Beatles… If anyone ever tells you they don’t like the Beatles, they are mistaken. Everyone likes the Beatles. Other favourites: The Smiths, who were a very good band, and Morrissey in his prime was AMAZING, as were Joy Division. Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Led Zeppelin – you don’t need me to list these bands, you can already guess. I like heavy music as well, and particularly enjoy things like Mayhem, Akercocke, Dillinger Escape Plan and Sunn o))), who are the trendiest bands I could just think of. In terms of recent music, I think dubstep is fantastic, and I often listen to grime mixes when I’m working. Scientists like grime, too, you know.

I used to host a radio show in university and it gave me a fantastic opportunity to borrow new CDs and get interviews with bands that I liked. If you go to university and you like music, JOIN THE RADIO STATION! It’s a great opportunity to share your taste in music and learn about new bands.

I like to read although I’m not particularly well read. That’s Hannah’s job. Hannah has read loads of books, but can she tell you who produced Dylan’s last album? No. I can, though – it was Dylan, but under the pseudonym Jack Frost. So I win there.

Richard Dawkins is my favourite science author, and I think that “Unweaving the Rainbow” was the book that first made me appreciate the beauty that science provides. I don’t think I have a favourite fiction author… I should read more.

I am, like all cool scientists, on Twitter. I tend to lurk rather than post anything of interest. Twitter is a great way of keeping up with science news, because a lot of famous scientists use it, and organisations like NASA, Nature, New Scientist etc. all have accounts, usually linked to their blogs. My favourite science blogs are Bad Science, Pharyngula (which is part of the whole world of science blogs, unsurprisingly called scienceblogs), Gimpy, the Lay Scientist and Quackwatch. Podcasts like the Naked Scientists, Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Nature podcast, the Guardian Science podcast, Science magazine podcast, Scientific American and This Week in Science are great to download and listen to while you work/play guitar/wash up/clean out the hamster/travel/work out etc. Add to this iTunes U, which you access from the iTunes store, which has free video lectures from some of the most distinguished universities in the world – and really there’s no excuse for being informed and up to date on science. Also, check out the amazing science series Cosmos by Carl Sagan (one of the best communicators of science). I think Brian Cox is safe.

The latest progress in science is not always shown on the news on the main TV channels and, when it is, it isn’t always told in the most accurate way. More and more, people are turning to the internet for the latest science news – and hopefully the links above will help!

 

More about my work:

I suppose the best way to describe my work is to ask a question: how do you tell the difference between something squidgy and something not so squidgy? 

I research a field called elastography, which is a way of diagnosing cancer using a normal ultrasound scanner. Now, by ‘normal ultrasound scanner’, I mean the machines you see when a pregnant woman is having her belly scanned, and you can see that kind of fuzzy black and white picture on the screen. Well, that is a diagnostic ultrasound scanner. Except, I don’t use it for looking at cute fetuses, I use it for trying to find and look at cancer. 

Now, you can use an ultrasound machine to diagnose cancer – and it is often used alongside other kinds of cancer imaging like MRI and X-rays (I did my masters studying these things – if you’ve got any questions, ask away!). But some kinds of tumours don’t show up on ultrasound.

So, what other properties of tumours can we use to find them in the body? Well, perhaps you’ve heard the expression ‘check yourself for lumps’. What this means is ‘look for small regions of tissue that are stiffer than normal’. You can tell how hard something is by squeezing it. For example, if I have a sponge in one hand, and a stone in the other and I squeeze both by the same amount (I apply the same amount of force per unit area, or stress), then I know whichever one changes shape the least is the hardest. In this, I am exploiting Hooke’s Law, which was first stated by British physicist Robert Hooke in 1676. Well, I say he stated – he actually stated it in Latin. And as an anagram. You can see it here, in the paragraph below the one highlighted. It was stated as:

ceiiinosssttuv

Which I’m sure (!) you all realised was an anagram of:

Ut tensio, sic vis

Which is Latin for ‘As the extension, so the force’. In other words, if I have a spring of some stiffness, the amount it stretches is directly related to the force I use to stretch it. Perhaps it seems obvious but in science, knowledge isn’t received – it develops and refines over time. Hooke’s law can be stated as an equation:

Stiffness = Stress / Strain

Where stress is the force divided by the total area over which it is applied (eg. the palm of my hand), and strain describes how much an object changes shape. So, for the same stress, if an object changes shape a lot (like a sponge) it has low stiffness. If it doesn’t change shape very much (like a rock) then it has high stiffness. Our brains do this calculation automatically when we squidge things with our hands. The field I work in just looks at making the process easier and more reliable.

So how do you use an ultrasound machine to make an image of stiffness? Well, the fact that it is an ultrasound machine is almost irrelevant. We just need a camera – something which takes very detailed pictures of the inside of the body (just like an ultrasound machine does – or an MRI scanner) whilst it is being squidged by something. That something could be a hand – or maybe the action of some mechanical plate which lies on the skin, or maybe waves of sound pressure. Each has its own advantages, disadvantages and particular applications. If we then have a series of pictures of the inside of the body whilst it is being squashed, we can look from picture to picture to see how the tissue is changing shape (straining) over time. Different parts of the image will strain differently depending on how stiff that part of the body is. If the strain is high, it is soft, and it the strain is low, then it is stiff. And that is pretty much it!

This kind of imaging called ‘elastography’, and the team that invented it has their website here, and they have kindly made almost all of their scientific publications available for download, too. You can take a look at what an elastogram looks like in this screenshot from a Hitachi scanner. 

Now, my PhD is all about asking a different question of elastography: can I make a picture which not only tells me about how stiff the tissue is, but also tells me about whether or not a tumour is free to slip against its surroundings?

 

 

My Typical Day

No two days have ever been the same in my PhD! I usually analyse some ultrasound data, read some scientific papers and maybe dream up new ideas for my own papers!

What I do in the day depends on where I plan to be!

If I’m in the office, then I’ll typically be analysing data from experiments or computer simulations. What does this actually mean? I use a piece of software called ‘Matlab’ for looking at my results and making graphs, calculating different quantities etc. from them. I have nightmares about Matlab. It is also one of the easiest computer coding languages (it is properly frowned upon by computery people, who use a language called C++ and probably use Linux), although it is notoriously slow. Still, I like to keep things simple and this is generally what I use.

If I’m in the lab, then I’ll be doing some kind of experiment. Doing an experiment is extremely interesting, because it is the ‘meat’ of science. You start with some idea, some theory or hypothesis that you want to test (eg. “Today, I am going to test the hypothesis that people think I look stupid in a hat” is a hypothesis you can test with an experiment. I put on a hat, go up to my friends and say “Do I look stupid?” and record the response). Then you have to make an experiment to test the hypothesis, which for me typically involves an ultrasound scanner, as that is what my research is all about. Experiments almost always take longer than expected, so I make sure I have music with me (favourite music for an experiment: something without words, like a jungle or dubstep mix that isn’t too distracting, but I can dance to it if I want, and people will realise how cool I am if they walk in). Also snacks.

If I’m very very lucky, I get to work from home! I genuinely look forward to this, and I suppose I’m lucky in being able to work from home without getting distracted by Jeremy Kyle or Judge Judy. That’s not to say I don’t have them on, I just don’t get distracted. As I mentioned above, I find it quite hard to work without some music playing. In the first couple of years of my PhD, I would generally only listen to long dubstep mixes while I worked. Now I have a snazzy iPod so I can branch out a bit and listen to whatever I like! Sometimes I also put on debates or things from iTunes U on in the background. Maybe some of it seeps in without me noticing. I am always happy to listen to Christopher Hitchens having a massive argument with someone for a couple of hours on youtube.

 

 

What I'd do with the money

I’d buy some amazing materials for practical science demonstrations for schools! (Failing that, you could get a lot of coffee for 500 wingwangs)

Ideally, I’d like to have a portable ultrasound scanner that I can take around to schools with me. Teachers, I think, would be up for volunteering to have their internal organs projected in all their glory on the whiteboard. This in turn is also a neat way of getting a practical look at a working machine (after talking about the physics and engineering behind it) and also a quick biology lesson! However, portable scanners could cost anything up to £100k – which not even my mum would lend me. So, more realistically, I’d put the money back into STEMNET – the organisation I volunteer with and who put me in touch with

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Short, musical, stinky

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Bob Dylan!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

That is a tough one. I think my first year of university was a lot of fun.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) Meet Bob Dylan – perhaps lunch followed by some kind of acoustic jam session? Seriously, if you can arrange this, let me know. 2) Be taller. 3) Infinite money. I’d also like to: – Not wear glasses; – Be able to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix

What did you want to be after you left school?

A rock superstar. Big house. Five cars. In charge etc. No but really… I was informed by my careers supervisor that I would want to be a lawyer. I am very glad I didn’t become a lawyer. I thought about going into music production – maybe a sound engineer. To be honest, I could go back into that using my acoustic physics knowledge from my Phd! I could be like Dr Dre… BUT AN ACTUAL DOCTOR! Unless Dr Dre is a real doctor, i which case I apologise.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Only a couple of times, but I don’t deal well with getting in trouble, so I lied.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

If I say “this”, do I get more points? I’ll say finding out that you can get pictures in ‘elastography’ (which is meant to make an picture of stiffness) from slippery tumours!

Tell us a joke.

What do you call cheese that doesn’t belong to you? Nacho cheese!