What do you do?
I am a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, in the area of drug delivery, with expertise in carbohydrates. My research tries to reveal structural details at an atomic level and look at the interaction of small molecules with large proteins.
Studying carbohydrates is important because they have a large role in cellular processes. For example, most membranes of cells are completely surrounded by carbohydrates. Carolyn Bertozzi, a California professor, says cells are like an m&m with their sugar coating. Using NMR it is possible to understand in much more detail the structural differences in carbohydrates. This is important for understanding ‘the glycan code’, this is information encoded in the structure of carbohydrates and defines how other molecules interact with them.
Increasingly pharmaceutical companies are recognising that carbohydrates are a good target for new drug therapies and our area of research is helping to further their understanding. Whilst this is the most important aspect of our work I just find the possibility of being able to discover something from nature that was somehow hidden really exciting.
What can you see?
An NMR machine, what is essentially a very big magnet. The magnetic field we need to generate is so high it is impossible to do with a normal electromagnet. We are able to generate a huge magnetic field using a superconductor coil. The coils’ conductive property is highest when it is very cold, -269°C. The coil is at the centre of the cylinder covered in liquid helium and insulated by vacuum (airless spaces). The samples that we are trying to understand more about are placed in the NMR machine through the red knob, into the exact geometrical centre of the cylinder, this is very important as it can affect the data collected. The magnetic field interacts with quantum properties of the nucleus of samples. This makes it possible to measure differences in energy between atoms, revealing information about the surrounding elements and structure. This can then tell us more about the shape and the dynamics of the carbohydrate or molecule being studied.
When I’m not doing science I…
I like playing the guitar. Because of my Spanish heritage, my favourite genre to play is flamenco. I have started learning to play the piano but I’m really not great.