Photo:

William Eborall

Favourite Thing: I know it might sound weird, but my favourite thing in science is when you step back from what you’re doing and realise how it works and feel wonder that it does work. Someone once described anything magical as being something which most people can’t describe how it works – by that definition a lot of science is akin to magic!

My CV

School:

Liverpool Blue Coat School (1998 – 2005)

University:

Biochemistry (with Year in Industry) – University of York (2005 – 2009)

Work History:

DMPK Scientist – AstraZeneca (2007 – 2008)

Employer:

University of York (2009 – 2013)

Current Job:

Working towards a PhD in Biology

Me and my work

I’m working with a small sea creature called a “gribble” to learn how it is able to eat and digest wood so that we can use this to make petrol for our cars out of farming waste.

A large portion of the energy we use as humans goes into moving us or our things from A to B. At the moment this tends to mean driving, flying or sailing us to school/work, to our holiday in the summer, our exotic foods to us in the winter, or our new Playstations from were they’re made to our living rooms! Currently this all requires us to use petrol or diesel – fossil fuels. But using these fuels releases carbon dioxide CO2 – infact in 2008 30% of all of the CO2 release in America was because of transport. This CO2 causes problems for us as humans, it changes the climate of our planet which can have devastating consequences. Also, these fossil fuels are a limited resource – once we’ve used them all up – they’re gone.

Therefore if we’re to still be able to move our new gadgets, food and of course us around the world we’re going to need a fuel that won’t run out, and one that won’t affect our climate.

There is no single solution to this problem, and lots of people are investigating lots of different ideas, from battery powered cars…

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to kite assisted cargo ships (www.skysails.info)…

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However it seems very likely that even if these solutions become widely used we’re still going to need something like petrol and diesel to power our cars and aeroplanes for the next 20 years or more while those technologies develop. This is were biofuel comes in.

A biofuel is a fuel which was made from something recently alive. For example bio-diesel is often made from waste vegetable oil from places like chip shops! Another example, and the one I’m most interested in is bio-ethanol (an alcohol).

Bio-ethanol is made by fermenting sugar into alcohol in the same way as when beer or wine is made. Sugar is fed to yeast which ferments the sugar into alcohol. Bio-ethanol can be put straight into a car and used in the same way as petrol. This means we can drive our cars using something which we can grow every year in a field – therefore renewable, infact hundreds of thousands of people in Brazil already do this every day. So unlike fossil fuel there isn’t certain amount we can use before it’s all gone!

This seems the perfect solution then, but there is one big problem with it at the moment. The sugar used to make this alcohol currently comes from crops like sugar cane and corn – things that we eat. So if we’re to make enough bio-ethanol to fuel  all of our cars we’ll have to stop eating things that contain sugar – and I for one am too big a fan of Coca-Cola to give it up to drive my car!

This is where the gribble come into it. When we make flour from a crop like corn, all we use is the corn. The rest of the plant, the cob, the stalk and leaves, just gets discarded – either burnt or ploughed back into the ground. But these waste bits are still full of sugar we could use – about half of them by weight is sugar. Unfortunately it’s locked up in a form that won’t dissolve and we can’t currently use – but gribble can. Animals like gribble and termites can eat these waste stalks and get the sugar out of them to live on. What if we could do that too on an industrial scale?

myimage1 – Gribble or by it’s sciency name Limnoria quadripunctata

This is what I’m trying to do – to learn how gribble breaks down things like wood and stems and farm waste to get at the sugar within. If we could do this then we could have the sugar we need to fuel our cars with bio-ethanol, and I can have jam on my toast!

My Typical Day

Usually involves lots of coffee, growing some bacteria (not in the coffee!) and writing up what I did the day before.

I live in York, and each day when I wake up the first thing I see through my curtains is York Minster on the horizon which I a pretty good way to wake up!

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I cycle into work for about 9am and tend to start my day checking emails with a cup of coffee, then work out what experiments I’m going to do. Although I work with gribble most of my work actually involves bacteria – so I’m often in the lab growing big flasks of bugs or extracting DNA from them.

One of the great things about being a PhD student is that I don’t have any set hours to work. This can be a blessing and a curse! Once I’ve done what I need to do for the day I can go home and relax. Sometimes this means I can be home in the middle of the afternoon with nothing to do which is great, but other days it means getting into work for 7am and not getting home til after 9pm which isn’t so great! But it all balances out and often the most interesting data comes out of the really long days and it feels like you really earnt it!

What I'd do with the money

If I won the money I would donate it to my departments outreach projects. This would pay for the equipment needed for people to go into schools and show them how biology can be used to make our lives better.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Thoughtful, odd, happy.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Green Day

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Mountain biking down a huge hill in North Wales – I ended up somersaulting down most of it attached to the bike after missing a jump but it was really fun! Especially once all the bruises healed.

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

To always be happy in my job – you spend most of your time at work and to win the lottery.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I actually wanted to be a medical doctor but decided that I’m too inquisitive. When people are sick I don’t think they want you to be interested, they want some tablets.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really – I was quite a quiet kid.

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

The most rewarding thing I’ve achieved in science was to be invited to a conference to tell others about work I’d done. It was sort of an acknowledgment that something I’d done was important to science and interesting to other people.

Tell us a joke.

What’s long, brown and sticky?…….. A stick! (Ok, ok, I got that one off of a Penguin wrapper)