The Life Scientific
The Life Scientific
About The Life Scientific
Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future
“Big data” and “data science” are terms we hear more and more these days. The idea that we can use these vast amounts of information to understand and analyse phenomena, and find solutions to problems, is gaining prominence, both in business and academia. Cathie Sudlow, Professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, has been at the forefront of enabling health-related research using ever-increasing datasets. She tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili why this type of research matters, how the COVID-19 pandemic changed attitudes towards data in healthcare, and why the NHS gives the UK a big advantage when it comes to population-wide studies. Over the course of her career, Cathie has held a variety of roles at different organisations, and she is currently Chief Scientist and Deputy Director at Health Data Research UK. She believes that there is no room for prima donnas in science, and wants her field to be open and collaborative, to have the most impact on patients’ lives. Produced by Florian Bohr.
Professor Jim Al-Khalili meets one of Britain's greatest physicists, Sir Michael Berry. His work uncovers 'the arcane in the mundane', revealing the science that underpins phenomena in the world around us such as rainbows, and through his popular science lectures he joyfully explains the role of quantum mechanics in phones, computers and the technology that shapes the modern world. He is famed for the 'Berry phase' which is a key concept in quantum mechanics and one Sir Michael likes to explain through an analogy of holding a cat upside and dropping it, or parallel parking a car. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Studio Producer: Tom Bonnett Audio Editor: Gerry Holt
People around the world are living longer and, on the whole, having fewer children. What does this mean for future populations? Sarah Harper CBE, Professor in Gerontology at the University of Oxford, tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili how it could affect pensions, why it might mean we work for longer, and discusses the ways modern life is changing global attitudes to when we have children, and whether we have them at all. Fertility and ageing have been Sarah's life's work and she tells her story of giving up a career in the media to carry out in-depth research, and going on to study population change in the UK and China, setting up the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and later becoming a Scientific Advisor to UK Government. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Producer: Tom Bonnett
Our primate cousins fascinate us, with their uncanny similarities to us. And studying other apes and monkeys also helps us figure out the evolutionary puzzle of what makes us uniquely human. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work brings a female perspective to this puzzle, correcting sexist stereotypes like the aggressive, philandering male and the coy, passive female. Sarah is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and studies female primate behaviour to create a richer picture of our evolutionary history, as well as what it means to be a woman or a parent today. Her overarching aim is to understand the human condition, a goal she initially planned to pursue by writing novels. Instead, she found her way into science: her groundbreaking study of infanticide among langur monkeys in northern India overturned assumptions about these monkeys’ murderous motivations. Later in her career, she looked into reproductive and parenting strategies across species. We humans are primed by evolution, she believes, to need a lot of support raising our children. And that’s a concern she found reflected in her own life, juggling family commitments with her career ambitions as a field researcher, teacher, and science writer. Produced by Cathy Edwards.
The Life Scientific returns with a special episode from the USA; Princeton, New Jersey, to be precise. Here, the Institute for Advanced Study has hosted some of the greatest scientific minds of our time - Einstein was one of its first Professors, J. Robert Oppenheimer its longest-serving director - and today's guest counts among them. Edward Witten is Professor Emeritus at the Institute and the physicist behind M-Theory, a leading contender for what is commonly referred to as ‘the theory of everything’, uniting quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about a career that’s spanned some of the most exciting periods in modern theoretical physics - and about one particular problem that's both obsessed and eluded him since his days as a student… Produced by Lucy Taylor.
With the world's biodiversity being lost at an alarming rate, Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has made it his life's mission to protect it. He is a bio-geographer revealing how changes to the Earth's landscape, such as the formation of mountain ranges and rainforests, leads to the evolution of new species and causes plants, fungi and animals to move around the world. His work is a masterclass in joined-up thinking, bringing together different fields of research by starting conversations between scientists who would rarely talk to one another. Together, they paint a more holistic picture of how our planet's biodiversity has developed in the hope of informing how we can protect it in the future. Alex tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili about a life spent in the wild, beginning with his earliest memories of growing up in Brazil cataloguing life in the Atlantic Rainforest. That passion is still with him today. We've only scratched the surface of understanding what lives here on Earth, he says, more than 4,000 new species are found every year. Alex is passionate that we need to speed up the rate at which we document the richness of life, arguing if we don't identify what there is we can't protect it. Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Tom Bonnett
Astronomer Paul Murdin believes a good imagination is vital for scientists, since they're so often dealing with subjects outside the visible realm. Indeed, over a long and successful career his imagination has taken him on a journey through space, discovering various new and unusual celestial occurrences - notably the first successful identification of a black hole, Cygnus X-1. Paul tells Jim Al-Khalili how he spent much of his career at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, working with astronomers around the world on some of the most advanced telescopes ever built. He headed up the Astronomy section of the UK’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, was Director of Science for the British National Space Centre and even has an asteroid named after him. This list of achievements is testament to the fact that Paul has never let his disability hold him back; a leg brace and walking sticks have been part of his life since contracting polio in childhood. But he maintains that as long as you have curiosity and a vibrant imagination, nothing should stand in your way. Produced by Lucy Taylor.
Some of the most complex medicines available today are made from living cells or organisms - these treatments are called biopharmaceuticals and in this episode of The Life Scientific Dr Bahija Jallal, CEO of Immunocore, shares her story of leaving her home in Casablanca, Morocco to become a world leader in developing biopharmaceutical cancer treatments. She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that she has always found herself ahead of the curve. When she began in oncology, the study of cancer, the common treatment was chemotherapy which attacked all the cells in an affected area. Her first studies into cancer treatments were looking at how certain therapies could focus in on the cancerous cells and move away from what she describes as the 'sledgehammer' of traditional chemotherapy. It was an early step in what became known as targeted cancer therapies, and it set Bahjia on course for a career dedicated to developing innovative drugs to improve cancer patients' lives. Through a deep understanding of the science and a resolute commitment to putting treatments in the hands of people who need them, she has produced astonishing results. Bahija has brought drugs to market faster than many believed was possible, and she has managed it by being an inspirational leader and encouraging her teams to think differently. How has she done it? Part of the secret, she says, is diversity of thought. Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Tom Bonnett
How much more of our world could we understand, if we could take stock of it, one atom at a time? If we could see the structure of individual molecules, understand the complex ways they interact with one another, and witness first-hand how they move? These are questions for electron microscopy, and more broadly, for Materials Science. Materials scientists peer into the atomic structure of the stuff that makes up our world, to figure out the relationships between the structure of a material, and its resulting properties. They study how to change materials at the molecular level, to improve the way they function in the real world. It’s an interdisciplinary field that spans the physics and chemistry of matter, engineering, and industrial manufacturing. It’s led to an enormous number of advances, from nanotechnology to aerospace engineering, pioneering medical innovations to quantum computing. And SOME of these advances are thanks to the work of Professor Colin Humphreys. As Professor of Materials Science at Queen Mary University of London, and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge, Colin works on materials with fascinating properties that would be hard to understand without delving into their atomic structure: semiconductors, superconductors, nanoparticles, and ultra-high temperature aerospace materials. He’s also a committed student of Christianity and applies his scientific mind to questions of biblical scholarship: calculating the exact date of the crucifixion for example, or naturalistic explanations for miracles. Produced by Emily Knight
Reproductive science has come a long way in recent years, but there's still plenty we don't understand - particularly around male fertility. The reliability and availability of data in this field has become more of a concern in light of a study published this year, suggesting that sperm counts worldwide have dropped 62% in the past 50 years. As yet there is no clear answer as to why that is. Professor Chris Barratt is one of the scientists working to change that. He's the Head of Reproductive Medicine at Ninewells Hospital and the University of Dundee Medical School, and has dedicated his career to better understanding male infertility; driving breakthroughs in how to study sperm dysfunctions – and most recently spearheading advances in developing a male contraceptive pill. Chris talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his academic struggles as a youngster, the lecture that changed his life, his research into 'head-banging sperm' and why he believes a new male contraceptive could be a game-changer. Produced by Lucy Taylor.
We’re used to hearing the stories of scientists who study the world as it is now but what about the study of the past - what can this tell us about our future? Gideon Henderson’s research focuses on trying to understand climate change by looking at what was happening on our planet thousands of years ago. His work has taken him all around the world - to the deepest oceans and the darkest caves - where he collects samples containing radioactive isotopes which he uses as “clocks” to date past ice ages and other major climate events. As a geochemist and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, his work deals with the biggest questions, like our impact on the carbon cycle and climate, the health of our oceans, and finding new ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he also very much works on the present, at the intersection between the worlds of research and policy. He has overseen the decision to allow gene-edited food to be developed commercially in England and a UK surveillance programme to spot the Covid-19 virus in our waste-water. Produced by Gerry Holt.
If you’ve ever seen the ocean during a storm, you’ll understand the extraordinary power contained in waves. On an island nation like Britain, that power could well be harnessed to produce clean energy; so why have we barely begun to tap this bountiful resource? Deborah Greaves is trying to change that. As Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Plymouth, she combines physical wave tanks with sophisticated computer modelling to test how well wave power devices respond to stormy seas. And as Director of the Supergen ORE Hub, she brings together researchers in offshore renewable energy to imagine a future of widespread, eco-friendly ocean power. Deborah tells Jim Al-Khalili about growing up in Plymouth fascinated by the sea, and about breaking from the norm in her arts-focused family, to pursue a degree in engineering. But she spent years as a civil engineer building tunnels for the London Underground - and going on expeditions to the Arctic with her husband - before undertaking a PhD at Oxford University, exploring what happens when waves crash into solid structures. She eventually returned to Plymouth and set up the institute’s Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport (COAST) Laboratory - a building with a swimming-pool-sized wave tank for testing new technologies. As Jim hears, these wave devices have an extraordinary diversity of uses - and could help to propel Britain into a greener energy future. Produced by Phil Sansom.
Imagine a world in which your laptop or mobile device accesses the internet, not via radio waves – or WiFi – as it does today but by using light instead: LiFi. Well, that world may not be as far away as you might think. In fact, the technology is already here; and it’s thanks in large part to the engineering ingenuity of Harald Haas, Distinguished Professor of Mobile Communications and Director of the Li-Fi Research and Development Centre at the University of Strathclyde. He tells Jim Al-Khalili about the two decades he has spent researching optical wireless communications, building up to his LiFi breakthrough in 2011, where he made waves in the scientific community and beyond by showing how a simple desk lamp could be used to stream a video. Harald’s research could well have a very real impact on people’s lives, reinventing the way we connect online – but, as Jim hears, his early life was dogged by a very real fear he may have the same devastating disease that took his mother's life at an early age; an experience that shaped his early years and which has driven him to succeed in his own life and career. Produced by Gerry Holt.
Our genes can tell us so much about us, from why we look the way we look, think the way we think, even what kind of diseases we might be likely to suffer from. But our genes aren't the whole story. There are other, complex and intriguing systems within every cell in our bodies which control which of our tens-of-thousands of genes are switched on, or off, in different parts of the body, and under different circumstances. Welcome to the fascinating world of 'epigenetics', which our guest, the molecular geneticist Anne Ferguson-Smith, describes as 'genetics with knobs on'. Anne, now Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge, tells Jim about her life and work. She's spent her professional life at the cutting edge: from a degree in a brand new field of Molecular Biology, to post-grad working on brand new genetic structures, through to a lifetime of discoveries and breakthroughs which have changed our understanding of the genome. Yet she wasn't always destined to be a scientist. She says she was a 'bad student' for a lot of her early life, and believes that embracing failure is an essential part of being a working scientist. Produced by Emily Knight
Anne-Marie Imafidon passed her computing A-Level at the age of 11 and by 16, was accepted to the University of Oxford to study Maths and Computer Science. She's used to the 'child prodigy' label that's followed her throughout her career, but that doesn't mean she's had an easy ride. It was a combination of personal experience and the discovery that the number of women working in the STEM sectors - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - was in free-fall that inspired Anne-Marie to found Stemettes: a not-for-profit social enterprise introducing girls to STEM ideas and careers in fun and accessible ways. It's now in its tenth year and still growing, while Anne-Marie has received an MBE, enjoyed a successful stint as the numbers guru on the TV series Countdown, and is the current President of the British Science Association. In conversation in front of an audience at the 2023 Cheltenham Science Festival, she tells Jim Al-Khalili about her quest for equality and diversity across the scientific community - and explains why she thinks everyone has the potential to be a 'child prodigy', given the right opportunity... Produced by Lucy Taylor.
From landslides and wildfires to floods and tornadoes, Bruce Malamud has spent his career travelling the world and studying natural hazards. Today, he is Wilson Chair of Hazard and Risk and Executive Director of the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University - but as he tells Jim Al-Khalili, a lifelong passion for discovery has taken Bruce from volunteering with the Peace Corps in West Africa and a Fulbright Fellowship in Argentina, to fieldwork in India; not only studying hazards themselves, but also the people they affect - and building up the character and resilience to overcome personal tragedy along the way... Over the years, his work in the field has opened up new ways of understanding such events: from statistical modelling to show how groups of hazards occur, to examining the cascading relationships between multiple hazards. And today, his focus is on projects that can bring tangible benefits to people at serious risk from environmental hazards - finding innovative ways to help them to better manage that threat. Produced by Lucy Taylor.
How often do you think about chemistry? The chances are, not often - but it is vital to every part of our lives, from the air we breathe, to the processes that take place inside our bodies and the materials we use. Gillian Reid is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Southampton and she is on a mission to make sure we all know what chemistry can do for us - and how it is tackling some of society’s biggest challenges. Hers is a story of firsts - the first in her immediate family to go to university and the first female member of staff in the chemistry department at the University of Southampton, where she later became the first female Professor and Head of Department. She is also the reigning President of the Royal Society of Chemistry - one of very few women to have taken on that mantle in its 182-year history. She tells Jim Al-Khalili about life as a female professor in a male-dominated space - and what needs to change to unlock chemistry for everyone. He also hears how Gillian is discovering new compounds that could revolutionise tech and medicine. We’ll also hear why she thinks research isn’t actually that hard and how chemistry can be a little bit like Lego… Do join us. Produced by Gerry Holt
The world around us is three-dimensional. Yet, there are materials that can be regarded as two-dimensional. They are only one layer of atoms thick and have remarkable properties that are different from their three-dimensional counterparts. Sir Andre Geim created the first-ever man-made 2D material, by isolating graphene, and is one of the pioneers in this line of research. Even beyond his Nobel Prize-winning work on graphene, he has explored new ideas in many different areas of physics throughout his career. Andre tells Jim about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, being rejected from university based on his German ethnicity, his move to Western Europe, and levitating frogs. Produced by Florian Bohr.
There are almost a million people in the UK living with dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form. But the disease actually starts long before any noticeable symptoms appear, and over the past decade, studies have shown that it is much more complex than previously thought. Julie Williams has been at the forefront of this effort, uncovering the genes that make us susceptible, and has transformed our understanding of this devastating disease. She has brought researchers together to create bigger datasets and more powerful studies. Her current work with scientists from other fields, like immunology and computational biology, is looking at the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease. Julie tells Jim about her early interest in science, her time as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh government, and her belief in ‘team science’ – collaborating and sharing research findings across international borders and disciplines. Produced by Florian Bohr
Since 1900, our best estimates suggest that earthquakes have caused around 2.3 million deaths worldwide; we saw the devastating effects of one just recently, in Turkey and Syria. And as scientists have been at pains to point out over the years, there is no reliable short-term warning system. But thanks to the work of people like James Jackson, an Emeritus Professor of Active Tectonics at the University of Cambridge, we are finding new ways of understanding and withstanding seismic activity. James tells Jim Al-Khalili about his career travelling the world in search of quake sites and fault lines – trialling new technology and techniques in a quest to understand the processes that shake and shape our planet’s surface; and working out how this information can help vulnerable cities become more resilient to quakes in future... Produced by Lucy Taylor.