When did you first know that you wanted to become a scientist?
When I was at school, I really didn’t have any particular idea of what I wanted to do, and in hindsight I think that, as with many people, my academic interests at that stage of my life were based on the quality of the people teaching me. I had an excellent chemistry teacher, and so it was chemistry that I decided to do at university.
But I do remember feeling in addition that whatever I wanted to do with my life it was something that would make some difference to the world and its people. So that’s what ultimately took me into scientific research after my undergraduate degree.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of how many of the young people who have worked with me have gone on to do really ground breaking work in important areas of science. I have been incredibly lucky to work with extraordinarily talented students and postdocs, and it has been an incredible satisfaction to watch so many of those people go on to develop their own careers in ways that reflect their personalities and their interests.
We’ve always been very collaborative in our research activities, as I have always enjoyed interacting with people from different fields of science. And the resulting cooperativity - people helping each other develop their areas of research and then their careers - is really satisfying. It’s also a way of addressing big issues in science, and is built on trust and the enjoyment of working with other people with different skills and talents.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Probably the biggest challenge for everyone in science is persisting with a problem that you know is really important but turns out to be very difficult to solve in the way that you first imagined. It can get frustrating but it is exciting to find solutions to difficult problems. But you have to keep motivated, and it helps to feel you’re working on an important problem that you really want to understand.
And that’s my challenge and satisfaction as a supervisor - finding out what aspects of science my students and postdocs like doing and helping them to do it most effectively.
The vast majority of my students and postdocs have persisted and got terrific jobs in the end. But however confident I might appear to them, I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking for each one “I hope it all works out all right”!
Of all the places you’ve visited as part of your work, where would you most like to go back for a holiday?
I love going to countries such as India that are so spectacular in terms of their history, culture and environments. I also enjoy enormously meeting people working and living in very different places, and discovering more about their lives and ambitions.
Indeed, one of the great things about being a scientist is that it’s an extraordinarily international activity. It shows that wherever people come from they can get on with each other in ways that have nothing to do with their background or previous experience.
What is your favourite international cuisine?
I like Indian and Chinese food - anything very spicy!
I particularly enjoy trying foods that have lots of local character as well. My wife comes with me on some of my trips and we always like to try somewhere for a meal with local character. That occasionally goes wrong, and we end up getting something we didn’t expect!
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
Deep-fried spider was perhaps the most unusual item. It came in a sort of wooden box and was quite crunchy. But once was enough!
What’s your favourite molecule and why?
I’d have to choose lysozyme for its historical value to my research activities. It changed my views of biological molecules and has led me into areas of science that I would never have found otherwise, and have proved to be both fascinating and important.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
I would quite like to have been an architect - perhaps because it has some of the same characteristics as science. If you design a building you’ve created something new. And I think science is like that. You do something and the way you do it makes a difference to the way that you and other people perhaps think about problems, and find solutions to them.