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Dr Andrew Steele

Andrew Steele works as a computational biologist for Cancer Research UK, despite gaining his PhD in physics.  He is a leading science communicator, particularly in the area of science funding.

A lot of the simple problems have been solved, really.

On becoming interested in science

My mum always tells me it was when I was about seven, I started looking up at the stars and I was immediately inspired by physics or astrophysics stuff because there was just the huge swathe of stuff up above me that was so beautiful and I wanted to understand it all.  That sort of took me onto a path looking at physics and I did an undergrad and a PhD in physics as a result of that so, yeah, it was from quite an early age. 

First experiment…yeah, actually, the first experiment I really loved was a chemistry experiment, actually, where we got some wax and we heated it up until it melted and then we cooled it back down again just by letting it cool naturally and there’s a point where the temperature suddenly goes completely static, so it’s been dropping and dropping and the temperature suddenly just goes flat and the reason for that is that it’s taking energy…actually, it’s releasing energy not by cooling down but by the wax turning from a liquid into a solid again.  I just thought that was absolutely amazing, watching this thermometer just flatlining for minutes on end and then suddenly, as soon as it had all solidified, it just started dropping again and I just thought that was absolutely beautiful and that must have been in Year 7 chemistry, so when I was eleven years old.

On working with nematode worms

Yeah, so I work with nematode worms; they’re a very common what’s called a “model system”, which means that they’re a system that we understand very well and we hope that by studying them, a lot of the evolutionary similarities between them and higher forms of life – so flies and mice and even humans – allow us to make inferences in these very simple organisms that we can then use to understand much bigger and more socially relevant questions.  

And the question that I’m particularly interested in is ageing, and the reason that worms are a very good system in which to study ageing is that firstly they don’t actually live very long: they only live about three weeks normally, unless we start doing stuff to them, which means that if you want to do an ageing experiment, they’re very very small, they’re only about a millimetre long, they only live a few weeks, you can pack a lot of life spans into a very small space and a very small time, whereas if you did these experiments on humans or primates or mice, they’re much much bigger, longer, more expensive experiments.  So it’s a really good way to try and understand the very simple aspects of ageing biology and find things that we can cross-apply to higher forms of life. 

On working with experiments

So a very common form of ageing experiment in ageing research is something called calorie restriction, which is when you feed an animal substantially less than it would like to eat if it were given free rein over how much food it consumes, but you make sure it gets all the relevant nutrients.  What’s really cool about this is if you restrict its calories enough, you see massive increases in life span, so that means that these worms who normally live a few weeks can live a few weeks longer, they can live, you know, maybe half as long again and we’ve seen the same effect in flies, seen the same effect in mice and there are even hints that a similar effect might work in rhesus monkeys, thought the results are a bit more contentious, they’re not quite all in yet.  So a really common experiment would be to get worms, put them on a little agar plate and feed them different amounts of the little bacteria that they eat and see how long they live, so what happens to their survival as a function of time and try and find out an optimal food level.  And then we want to decode the sort of chemical pathways that underlie that and see if we can work out what’s going on behind the scenes.

I think a lot of the initial idea tends to be based on really exploratory experiments, so you’ll do a series of experiments; perhaps in the physics I was doing before you’d get a load of different materials and just try them out.  So I was working on these things called molecular magnets and they’re often magnets that work at very very low temperatures.  So you get a huge range of never synthesised before types of magnets, you cool them down to very nearly absolute zero and just see what happens, and sometimes they’ll do something really interesting and sometimes they won’t, so you take the interesting ones and try and probe them in different ways to understand why they’re behaving differently to the others.

So I think a lot of scientific research, because…a lot of the simple problems have been solved, really, and because we’re looking at much more complex systems, that means that we just tend to explore a load of stuff and then follow up the interesting bits, I think.

On being proved wrong

An awful lot of science is ruling stuff out.  So we’re all standing on the shoulders of this massive international historical collaboration of so many experiments that didn’t work and I really think that it’s very important that we try and convey this message that a negative result is a result as well and ruling out these things and finding that this particular magnet isn’t going to be particularly useful as a data storage device or in finding out that this particular drug has no effect on the lifespan of a worm, that saves someone else the trouble, you can publish that and we can move on and find something better and actually get a result that’s going to work.  So I think as a scientists you do have to be quite accepting of these failures but, occasionally, when you do get successes, they make up for it.

I think it is a bit of a battle, particularly where people’s lifestyles are concerned; I think climate change would really be the archetypal example of that. We’re not entirely sure what exactly the precise effects of climate on a particular place in Africa in a particular time in the future are going to be, and that’s particularly uncertain because we don’t know how we’re going to act in the next 50 years anyway, so that’s a massive human uncertainty on top of a scientific one.  I think that that kind of uncertainty really fuels  a lot of climate skepticism, there’s a lot of places that they can say, particularly on the economic side, we’re not sure what the economic or social effects of these particular changes is going to be but the science is relatively solid, the economic and the social side of things is very complicated and I think that really is a particular challenge in that field because you’re trying to explain to people that, you know, we’re not entirely sure but we’ve really got to do something.

On getting into science for others

I think there are two gateway drugs to science, the first of which is astronomy, because I think that these massive, cosmic, big fundamental questions are what drive a lot of people, certainly into physics.  The other thing that’s started to drive me more in recent times is the sort of human aspect of it because science is the way that we understand the world around us, it’s the way that we can to some extent manipulate the world around us and make it a better place, and so I think perhaps if you’re not so enthused by these massive, almost philosophical big questions, another really good angle to say is look at all the amazing stuff that science has achieved from, you know, medicine to energy production to all this sort of thing and you could be a part of making that happen and understanding that is critical to understanding your place in the world.

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