• Question: How do you carry out your research?

    Asked by osamabinladen to Meeks, Pete, Stephen, Steve, Tom on 16 Jun 2010 in Categories: .
    • Photo: Stephen Curry

      Stephen Curry answered on 13 Jun 2010:

      These days I have a team of researchers who do most of the experiments in the lab, although I am closely involved in thinking up experiments and in discussing the results with them.

      At present most of our work is devoted to trying to reveal the structures of proteins that are involved in virus infections. One of the viruses we study is foot-and-mouth disease. This doesn’t infect humans but it can certainly have a bad impact on farmers since it infects cows, goats, sheep and pigs.

      The nuts and bolts of what we do is described in the “me and my work” bit of my profile (which includes links to some videos). We use a combination of different techniques including genetic engineering, protein purification, crystallisation, X-ray diffraction (physics!) and maths to reveal the structures of protein molecules that are too small to see, even with microscopes. Seeing the structures then allows us to figure out how the proteins work and what they do. For virus proteins, this sometimes gives us ideas about how to make drugs to stop the virus from working which should cure the disease.

    • Photo: Steve Roser

      Steve Roser answered on 14 Jun 2010:

      There’s a lot of things go into doing research. You have to think about what you might like to do, you have to get people to help, and bits of kit and chemicals you might need and then you have to do it. Probably the most difficult bit at the moment is getting the money to get people and kit. Scientists often spend ages and ages moaning that there is not enough money for us to do what we want to do (I’d guess most of us five have lots of ideas..) and that’s true. But if I assume what you really want to hear about is what I do day to day when I have the cash, people and time..
      My work involves visiting neutron sites around teh world, bouncing neutrons off thin films.

    • Photo: Marieke Navin

      Marieke Navin answered on 14 Jun 2010:

      That is a really good question. There are lots of ways I research. The main one is by doing experiments. It’s a lot like the ones you do in school, except that I have to invent them and then scrounge around looking for the equipment to carry them out! For example I needed to make a container to house some scintillator solution (a scintillator is a material that emits light when a charged particle passes through it). The problem is that the scintillator is very corrosive and attacks lots of different materials. So I bought a bunch of sample jars, got samples of loads of different plastics, made a couple of ovens out of a box and a hot bulb, and exposed all of my samples to the scintillator, observing which materials survive the chemical attack!

      Another main way of researching is by reading other people’s scientific papers. For example I wanted to measure the refractive index of some fluids (that is a measurement of how light bends when it travels through a liquid). Erm…how on earth do I do this?!?! First step is to read around the subject and find out how other people have done it. Internet searches help a lot here too.

      Another way I research is by talking! There is a lot of expertise within my department at uni and a first port of call is always the other PhD students in my office. Hey, does anyone know how to do this? Anyone done this before? seen this? We work in big collaborations so sometimes I’d be on the phone to a colleague in Vancouver asking him how he did such and such an experiment…

    • Photo: Tom Hartley

      Tom Hartley answered on 16 Jun 2010:

      Hi osama,

      I’ve answered a lot of your questions, but I think the best way to answer this one is to quote what I put in my profile. If you go there you will also see pictures and you can find out a little more on my blog

      “One of the most useful techniques I use is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI scanner uses a strong and precisely-controlled magnetic field, together with radio waves, to create a detailed 3D image of the brain…

      MRI scans are very useful in themselves (e.g., doctors use them to diagnose and treat disease and brain injury), but functional MRI (fMRI) takes MRI to another level. It is a way of tuning the scanner to be sensitive to small changes in blood flow that occur when brain cells send signals to one another. The information can be gathered very quickly: a new image of the whole brain can be made every 2-3 seconds. The person inside the scanner has to keep very still, but they can do complex tasks (using a computer display and buttons for example). By comparing activity we see during different, carefully-designed tasks we can figure out how each part of the brain contributes to each one. For example, I used a modified video game (Quake 2 – see the picture below) to compare brain activity seen when people were finding their way around a virtual town with activity when they followed a fixed, familiar route – although on the surface these tasks are very similar, they seem to rely on different brain systems… “