For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. First, we are delving into genetics and molecular biology – from Darwin’s legacy, to the structure of DNA and now modern molecular techniques.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most famous scientific theories in biology to come from Britain. Before Charles Darwin famously published this theory, several classical philosophers considered how some traits may have occurred and survived, including works where Aristotle pondered the shape of teeth.
These ideas were forgotten until the 18th century, when they were re-introduced by philosophers and scientists including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
Darwin used birds, particularly pigeons and finches to demonstrate his theories. Image: Pixabay
In 1859, Darwin first set out his theory of evolution by natural selection to explain adaptation and speciation. He was inspired by observations made on his second voyage of HM Beagle, along with the work of political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on population.
Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’, thinking of it as like the artificial selection imposed by farmers and breeders. After publishing a series of papers with Alfred Russel Wallace, followed by On the Origin of Species, the concept of evolution was widely accepted.
Although many initially contested the idea of natural selection, Darwin was ahead of his time, and further evidence was yet to come in the form of genetics.
Gregor Mendel first discovered genetics whilst working on peas and inheritance in the late 19th century. The unraveling of the molecular processes that were involved in this inheritance, however, allowed scientists to study inheritance and genetics in a high level of detail, ultimately advancing the field dramatically.
A major discovery in the history of genetics was the determination of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).
DNA was first isolated by Swiss scientists, and it’s general structure – four bases, a sugar and a phosphate chain – was elucidated by researchers from the United States. It was a British team that managed to make the leap to the three-dimensional (3D)structure of DNA.
Using x-ray diffraction techniques, Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, discovered that the bases of DNA were paired. This lead to the first accurate model of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. The work was initially published in Nature in 1953, and would later win them a Nobel Prize.
The age of genetic wonder. Source: TED
By understanding the structure of DNA, further advances in the field were made. This has lead to a wide range of innovations, from Crispr/CAS9 gene editing to targeted gene therapies. The British-born science has been utilised by British pharmaceutical companies – pharma-giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca use this science today in driving new innovations.
Interested in the pharmaceutical industry and research community? Take a look at this short video to see how we bring science and business together.
In early September of this year, 34 final year chemists from all over the United Kingdom descended on GSK Stevenage for a week of all things chemistry, at the 14th Residential Chemistry Training Experience.
A few months prior, an e-flyer had circulated around the Chemistry department at UCL. It advertised the week-long, fully-funded initiative created to give soon-to-be grad chemists insight into the inner workings of the pharma industry. We were told we would also receive help with our soft skills – there was mention of interview prep and help with presentation skills. As someone who doesn’t have an industrial placement year structured into their degree, I was excited to see how different chemistry in academia might be to that in industry, or if there were any differences at all.
A fraction of GSK’s consumer healthcare products. Image: GSK
Two days in labs exposed me to new analytical techniques and gave me an appreciation for how smoothly everything can run. I was assigned a PhD student who supervised me one-on-one – something you’re seldom afforded at university until your masters year. We hoped to synthesise a compound he needed as proof of concept, and we did!
The abundance in resources available and state-of-the-art equipment at every turn highlighted how different an academic PhD might be to an industry one if that’s the route I decided to go down. The week bridged the disconnect I had between what I’d learnt at university and how things are done or appear.
The GSK training course gave me unique insight into the life of a working scientist. Image: Pixabay
For example, I know enzymes can be used to speed up the rate of a biological reaction, but I’d never stopped to think about what they even look like. They come in the form of a sand-like material, if you’re wondering. Before that week, I hadn’t seen a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine – we’d hand in our samples and someone else did the rest. NMR is an analytical technique we employ to characterise samples, double-checking to see we’ve made the right thing. It was great to put all this chemistry into context.
Our evenings were filled with opportunities to meet GSK staff and a networking formal brought in many others from places like SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, used by scientists to determine the properties of a molecule. Image: GSK
During the week, there was a real emphasis on equipping us with the skills and confidence to succeed in whatever we opted to do. That’s exactly how I felt during our day of interview prep. The morning started off with a presentation on the structure of a typical graduate chemistry interview, followed by a comical mock interview before we were set loose with our own interviewer for an hour. Before this, I’d never had someone peer over my shoulder as I drew out mechanisms, and I’d never anticipated that I’d forget some really basic stuff.
The hour whizzed by and when I was asked how I thought it had gone – terribly – and I was met with feedback that not only left me with more confidence in my own abilities, but an understanding of what a good interview is. It’s definitely OK to forget things – we’re human – but what’s most important is showing how you can get back to the right place using logic when you do forget.
Whether you’re curious about what goes on in companies like GSK, know you definitely want to work in pharma or you’re approaching your final year and just don’t know what you want to do (me), I’d recommend seeking out opportunities like this one. I got to meet people at my own university that I’d never spoken to and had great fun surrounded by others with the same love for organic chemistry.