15 Aug 2010
I work at Rothamsted Research in the Centre for Sustainable Pest and Disease Management where we develop new and improved methods of controlling insects that are pests or that carry pathogens, which cause disease in plants and animals (including humans). My career started with a BSc honours degree in Zoology at the University of Aberdeen. It was hard work, but I enjoyed learning about the lives of different animals around the world and I achieved a first class honours degree. During this time I spent summers in Costa Rica working in the rain forest and Cyprus working on a sea turtle conservation project. After my degree, I took a gap year and travelled around Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In Australia I stopped off for a few months at an ecology field station where I worked with endangered marsupials. When I returned to the UK I embarked upon a PhD to investigate why some people are bitten more than others by mosquitoes. My PhD led to several publications and won the Alfred Russell Wallace Award from The Royal Entomological Society.
My research is now focused on understanding how blood-feeding insects detect semiochemicals (behaviour-modifying chemicals) and use them in their everyday lives. Insects have a keen sense of smell and they use their antennae to detect the chemicals. Once detected, the chemicals stimulate the nervous system and this causes the insect to change its behaviour. Part of my job is to work with chemists to identify those chemicals using techniques such as gas chromatography (GC) and coupled GC-mass spectrometry. This is not only fascinating stuff for a biologist, but we can actually use this knowledge to manipulate the behaviour of insects in a bid to develop better ways to control them.
I now run a small team of young researchers and PhD students at Rothamsted and we work on identifying semiochemicals for a range of insects - from bed bugs to mosquitoes. One of my projects, which examined why some people are bitten more than others by mosquitoes, identified repellent chemicals from people who rarely get bitten. In partnership with industry, these chemicals are now being developed as a new insect repellent product.
Soon I will take up post as a Lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Working in this environment will allow me to transfer my chemical ecology skills and expertise into new and exciting areas of medical entomology. It also involves teaching which is something quite new to me - but I am looking forward to being able to inspire and pass on my knowledge and enthusiasm for science to students.
Who or what first stimulated your interest in science?
I think my interest in science stemmed from my love for natural history. Since I can remember I have been fascinated by animal behaviour - I can remember sitting watching ants in the garden and wondering how they knew how to find their way back to their nest and I recall being amused by watching how the least aggressive goose would always get to the food because the more aggressive ones were too busy squabbling. I remember spending my pocket money on a UK wildlife book and even started a ‘wildlife club’ at school when I was 8. Me and my Dad would take the (one or two!) other members to the local nature reserve and we would identify birds and insects.
Why did you decide to pursue a science career?
One thing is for sure - I always wanted to work in a job that I really enjoyed. It was obvious that I would make more money if I pursued accountancy or some other office-based job, but I knew I wouldn't be happy in that sort of job.
What attracted you to your degree course(s)?
The reason I chose to do a Zoology degree at University was because it looked incredibly exciting - studying all sorts of animals in all kinds of environments. I knew that it would provide the right training for pursuing a career in my area of science.
How did you come to join SCI and why?
The main reason I joined SCI as a student was to take advantage of the reduced conference rates for members. Also I was awarded a poster prize at a Research day at my University during my PhD which introduced me to the Society.
Is SCI helping you develop your career and how?
The BioResources Group conferences at Belgrave Square on disease vectors have been important for meeting new collaborators and networking. I was a delegate and poster presenter.
What more could SCI do to help you and others developing careers in science?
Perhaps provide more opportunities for post graduate students to interact with other post graduates in other disciplines (conferences, etc) as well as industry.
What do you hope to be doing in 5 years time?
I hope to build up my research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to produce some high impacting, innovative and meaningful research that provides a better understanding of how insects interact with us and that could be used to make a difference in developing countries. I would also like to be interacting with industry to help provide new ways to control biting insects by creating new commercial products.
How would you persuade young people that science offers interesting and worthwhile career opportunities?
Science is all around us. Every single thing that we do - everything that we touch or taste - has a scientific basis. Working in science can be fun and very rewarding. These days science is full of young and enthusiastic people. If you become a scientist, not only will you work with the latest high tech and state-of-the-art kit, but you will be the person who discovers the next generation of gadgets. Science can make a real difference. You really could be the person who finds a cure for cancer or invents the next space shuttle. Sure, you have to be patient and self-motivated when things don't work, but when YOU are the one who finds the answer to a problem that no one else on the planet has been able to solve, the feeling is awesome!
If you could do one thing to improve the image of science what would that be?
I would work towards marketing science in a sexy way to get rid of the stereotypical image of a ‘geek’ scientist; create a better and more open dialogue with the public; and increase pay which would attract more students and ultimately better scientists.
Do you have a science hero?
Yes, Charles Darwin and Sir David Attenborough.
You can connect with other SCI members who are in a similar field to James, through the SCI Members' Directory.