Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future.
Sharon Peacock on hunting pandemic variants of concern
Microbiologist Sharon Peacock has led one of the genuine science success stories of the pandemic. Professor Peacock is the founding director of COG-UK, the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium. COG-UK is the network of 600 scientists and labs around the country which has acted as our surveillance system for the appearance and spread of new and dangerous variants of concern.
Thanks to Professor Peacock and her colleagues, the UK was way ahead of other countries in establishing a national network of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and genomic analysis although she was the target of criticism when COG-UK was being set up in the spring of 2020. However, as she tells Jim Al-Khalili, it paid off. For example, it was the sequencing of virus samples by the consortium that last December identified the fast-spreading Alpha or so-called Kent variant. This was the variant responsible for the terrible second wave of deaths and hospitalisations last winter. It was a combination of the overwhelmed hospitals, rocketing infection rates and the discovery of Alpha that persuaded the government to tighten the rules for that Christmas and institute the lockdown in January.
Before the pandemic, Sharon Peacock was a pioneer and advocate for the application of pathogen genome sequencing in the National Health Service to tackle the growing menace of antibiotic resistance. She is a consultant in microbiology and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge. This is not a list of titles and achievements which Sharon could have possibly imagined when she left school at 16, to work full time in her local corner shop.
Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Tim Clutton-Brock on meerkats, red deer and evolution
The huge popularity of meerkats is in no small part down to Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, zoologist and evolutionary biologist of the University of Cambridge.
‘Meerkat Manor’ and many natural history TV documentaries that have followed the lives of these small appealing mongooses were filmed at the field research centre in South Africa which Tim set up three decades ago.
Colleagues describe Tim Clutton-Brock as one of the giants in the field of animal behaviour and societies, seeking to explain them from an evolutionary and ecological perspective.
He is renowned for his ambitious, long-term studies of populations of animals in the wild. His research follows hundreds of individuals to see how the animals develop and fare over their entire lifetimes and what factors determine their longevity and their success at producing offspring.
Among the numerous species which Tim has studied are red deer on the island of Rum in Scotland and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. From the minutiae of the lives of many individual animals, his aim has been to see the big picture – explanations that provide a logical framework for what we see in Nature.
Professor Clutton-Brock talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his five decades of research; including why sons cost mothers more than daughters, getting close to fighting stags at night, and how to tame a meerkat so she’ll let you ultrasound her belly.
Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Tim Spector and personalised diets for long term health
Many of us take dietary rules for granted such as eating little and often, not skipping meals and keeping a check on our calorie intake. But genetic epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector argues we need to re-evaluate what we think we know about a good diet: diversity in both the types of food we eat and in the unique mix of microbes we nurture in our gut is the most important factor for health.
In a multi disciplinary career following early training as a rheumatologist, Tim founded the UK Twins Registry at Kings College London to unravel the extent to which genes contribute to a vast range of human conditions and diseases. But the puzzling differences he observed in identical twins would fuel his current research on the gut microbiome and the discovery that each of us has a unique mix of gut bacteria – in effect a chemical factory that dictates our highly individual responses to different foods.
Tim tells Jim Al-Khalili how his research has evolved to successfully develop a new scientific approach to personalised nutrition – through technology that during the pandemic has famously been pressed into service to track Covid symptoms across the UK, and that’s now revealing how a diverse diet has huge implications for Covid-19 outcomes.
Producer: Adrian Washbourne
The Patrick Vallance Interview
Could the lessons learnt during the pandemic put us in a stronger position to tackle other big science-based challenges ahead, such as achieving carbon net zero, preserving a diversity of species, and protecting our privacy and slowing the spread of misinformation online?
As Chief Scientific Adviser to the government during a pandemic, Patrick Vallance's calm, clear summaries of the state of our scientific understanding of the virus were welcomed by many. But what was going on behind the scenes? In this extended interview with Jim Al-Khalili, Patrick opens up about the challenges involved in presenting scientific evidence to government and together they explore that trickiest of relationships - the one between scientists and politicians.
He also looks to the future. Scientists gain prominence during a crisis but the need for scientific input to government is ever present. As head of the new Office for Science and Technology Strategy, based in the Cabinet Office, Patrick hopes to put science and technology at the heart of policy making in government. Science should be as central to government as the economy, he says and tells Jim how he thinks that could be achieved.
Producer: Anna Buckley
The Life Scientific at 10: What makes a scientist?
How damaging is the stereotype of white males in white coats? Do scientists think differently? Or do the qualities we associate with being a nerd do them a disservice? Is specialism the best way to solve 21st century problems when so many great discoveries are made in the cracks between the disciplines? In short, what makes a scientist, a scientist? Jim and distinguished guests consider the lessons learnt from nearly 250 leading scientists talking with extraordinary honesty about their life and work.
And ask: has the job description changed? Success in science is often defined by making discoveries and publishing papers but, as the pandemic made clear, we also need scientists who can interact with decision makers in government and elsewhere. Do scientists need to learn new skills to participate in the decision making process? Do they (or at least some of them) need to be more outward looking, aware of the world beyond their laboratories and ready to engage? Or do the corridors of power need to open their doors to more people with a scientific training? And, if Britain is to become a science superpower, is it time that scientists stopped being squeamish about making money?
Jim's guests are Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser; Nobel Prize winning biologist and Director of the Crick Institute, Prof Sir Paul Nurse; geologist and Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer, Prof Christopher Jackson; and forensic scientist and member of the House of Lords, Prof Dame Sue Black.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Hannah Cloke and predicting floods
This summer, many parts of the world have seen devastating flooding, from New Orleans and New York, to the UK, Germany and Belgium. More than 300 people lost their lives in floods in central China, including a number who were trapped in a subway train in the city of Zhengzhou. Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading is a natural hazards researcher and hydrologist, who spends her time trying to prevent these terrible losses. She models where flooding is likely to happen and advises governments.
Hannah Cloke talks to Jim al-Khalili about how her fascination with the water on the earth goes back to her childhood – her memories of holidays for instance all revolve around swimming or building dams on the beach. She is now passionate about finding new ways of telling the public about the dangers of flooding, which includes writing poetry.