Favourite Thing: Collecting data in some crazy far-off places filled with tons of adventure; bit like Indiana Jones but without the Temple of Doom!
Brynteg Comprehensive School (1981-1988); Manchester Metropolitan University (1988-1991); Loughborough University (1992-1993); University of South Wales (1994-1997)
BSc (Hons); PGCE; PhD and Fellowships (Royal Society of Chemistry, American College of Sports Medicine and Pulmonary Vascular Research Institute)
Research Physiologist, British Olympic Medical Centre (1993-1995); Senior Lecturer to Reader, University of Glamorgan (1995-2003); Assistant Professor, Depts of Surgery and Anesthesiology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver (2003-2004)
Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry; Research Unit Leader; Director of the Research Institute of Science and Health
University of South Wales (formerly known as the University of Glamorgan)
Me and my work
Understanding the limits of human exercise performance (how high we can climb, how deep we can dive, how fast we can run) by determining how we can get more oxygen to our brains!
Many kilograms ago (!!!) I used to be an international distance runner and enjoyed pushing myself to the limits. However, no matter how hard I trained, how well I ate or how many Rocky movies I watched, I simply couldn’t get any better and my performance just leveled out. This was super-frustrating and so I figured that if I couldn’t break any World Records, then I wanted to know exactly why so I decided to become a scientist! Over the years, my research has taught me that Olympic athletes are a breed apart and their ability to break World Records was not just down to their careful selection of parents (genetics, in as much Mum and Dad gave them the tools they were born with!) but was also down to their incredible ability to get as much oxygen as possible into their brains. Forget the heart, the muscles, the lungs (as we all originally thought), it’s all about getting oxygen to the brain which sets the limits to extreme endurance performance. This research has also helped me figure out if you’ve got what it takes to (one day!) get to the summit of Mt. Everest and whether you’d make a champion freediver (someone who dives as deep as they can holding their breath underwater; in fact, the current World Record holder can hold his breath for over 22 minutes, unbelievabubble and don’t try to break this record in the bath tonight!). I’ve started to apply what I’ve learnt with these super-fit Olympic athletes to super-frail old people whose Olympic Gold medal is just being able to get out of their armchair. We use special exercises to train-their-brains (neurobics) and slow the ageing clock down so that they feel way better! It’s a great example of where mind meets body and we’re using exercise as a cheap and safe medicine to help them live longer and have more fun in later life. This is very important to me because I want my grandparents to be around forever and even you’ll be old yourself one day!
Check out this recent article written by the Royal Society of Chemistry explaining what I do for fun, I mean for a living!
My Typical Day
Spending time in a special high-altitude chamber where there’s less oxygen pushing athletes’ brains to their limits!
Well, I get into the University where I work for about 9 o’clock (not too early!) and meet some of my science pals over a coffee to discuss and plan the day’s experiments. Much of my working day is spent having fun collecting data from a variety of different human volunteers who’ve signed up for some super-exciting experiments! For example, right now as I type this we’re currently giving mountaineers beetroot juice (tastes like yuck and makes your wee turn red!) because it helps get more oxygen to their brains to help them cope with the oxygen-thin air when climbing to high-altitude to protect them against altitude sickness. Climbing mountains can be super expensive so we get around this by asking them to step inside an environmental chamber where we simulate climbing up a mountain by sucking out the oxygen (cool!). Check out my “Chamber of Secrets” . It’s a weird feeling and they really enjoy it, especially because it makes them feel a bit spaced out and their brains are baffled! Me and my research team have become almost like Sherpas (mountain tribe people) since we’ve become so used to the oxygen-thin air having spent the majority of our working days on top of a virtual mountain! By the afternoon, we usually have some Olympic athletes (even World Champion boxers believe it or not!) who come into the chamber to train in the low-oxygen environment with the aim of turbo-charging their performance when they come out into the oxygen-rich air at sea-level! This is know as altitude training and most top-end athletes use this nowadays as a legal way of improving their performance. Again, we spend of lot of time trying to figure out how they are better than us mere mortals in terms of getting oxygen into their brains by making various measurements using all sorts of super-fun, geeky equipment. The volunteers look like something out of Star Trek with wires hanging everywhere but you’ll be glad to know that the whole experience is pretty painless; we want them to come back! Check out how funny they look . By the end of the day, I need another coffee and most importantly of all, oxygen (!!!), so I spend an hour or two analysing my data in my office. It’s really cool because I can then start to write about it and discover new things! By 18h I’m driving home to be able to play with my 1 year old son Luca; check this dude out . It’s always busy but the day whizzes by because me and the team are having fun so it feels more like a hobby than real work!
What I'd do with the money
If I was lucky enough to win, I’d like to visit as many schools in the UK as I could with different tyes of athletes as part of the “Travelling-Brain-Train-Lab” to tell you guys what makes them so good and why exercise is so important for you to live a longer, healthier and more fun life.
Everyone loves sport and even though some of us may not want to do it, we still watch it on TV and sportspeople are great role models! I’ve got to know a whole range of athletes through my own sports career and also thanks to my work in science. I’ve become good friends with all sorts of athletes including runners, jumpers, freedivers, mountaineers (who’ve climbed Mt. Everest!), boxers and even bodybuilders. So I think it would be a fun idea to bring some of these athletes along to your school so that we can figure out what makes them such great performers. We’ll do some live experiments and compare how they perform with some normal (mere mortal!) volunteers that will serve as our experimental controls; your teacher would be a great example and will let you turn the table on them for once! You’ll get to play with some interesting equipment to show how well the athletes can control blood flow to their brains when they exercise (and how poorly your teacher performs by comparison!) and you’ll learn some super-interesting science along the way! And of course, you’ll be able to ask the athletes how they got started with exercise and you’ll soon realise that they’re pretty sharp themselves, even if they aren’t qualified as scientists! They’ll tell you all about healthy eating, how best to exercise and give you real-life stories that you’ll be able to identify with. I remember once being in University and we had to watch a bodybuilder “posing” showing us his muscles as part of our anatomy lesson! It was a bit funny at first but I probably understood more about the human body by seeing it in real-life than I’ve ever gleaned from a boring old textbook with black-and-white pictures! The science of human physiology (understanding how we humans work!) is way more fun when you can see, touch and test! So I’d spend the money mostly on petrol getting around to see you at your School!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Adventurous, friendly, fun
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Stereophonics (they’re all from near where I live!)
What's your favourite food?
Fishfingers covered in baked beans (try it!)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Doing research with diving seals!
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yes, but only because I used to get bored because I was so hyper-active!
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Inspire the younger generation to ask super-interesting questions about how our brains work!
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
My (late) grandfather Graham Jenkins who was an absolute legend; I remember him explaining to me how to calculate the speed of light (crazy concept!), outlining how a microchip works and how to make fizzy bombs with my first chemistry set; he made learning fun and easy!
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Break the world record for the marathon; surf the biggest wave ever recorded; live forever!
Tell us a joke.
A frog went to visit a fortune teller. “What do you see in my future?” asked the frog. “Very soon,” replied the fortune teller. “you will meet a pretty young girl who will want to know everything about you.” “That’s great!” said the frog, hopping up and down excitedly. “But when will I meet her?” “Next week in science class.” said the fortune teller!!!
Here’s a photo of me acting as a subject for my own study in my environmental chamber where I’m huffing puffing because I’m 4500m above sea-level .
Check this photo of one of the labs in the Swiss Italian Alps (Capanna Regina Margherita) where I also perform similar experiemnts, but this time at “real” high-altitude! .
This is how we get to these remote places; what a cool way to travel! .
Take a look at what we scientists do when we’ve got some free-time! My “lab” is on top of the mountain in the top-left-hand corner; cool! .
Standing on top of the World (well, the Swiss Italian Alps at least!). Science is all about teamwork and you make some fabulous friends! .
It’s not “all” fun and games; sometimes you have to do some work! Here I am preparing blood samples to take back home to my lab in Wales to measure invisible molecules called “free radicals”. These whizz around the blood and they can cause damage (we think!) to make mountaineers sick at high-altitude because of the tin-air and lack of oxygen. Mountaineers don’t feel great at this altitude and patients with heart or lung problems feel like this too, except they’re at sea-level! So these experiments at high-altitude are helping us understand how to treat and one-day, prevent diseases encountered by all sorts of patients who struggle to get hold of enough oxygen. That’s when science can really “make a difference”!!!