Electrons are elementary subatomic particles found in all atoms within the universe. Pairs of electrons form the chemical bonds that hold atoms together to form compounds. Unpaired electrons occur on organic radicals and transition metal ions. They can be extremely reactive but biological systems have developed processes that control and harness this reactivity for use in catalysis and to generate energy. I am interested in the properties of these unpaired electrons and the enzymes (biological catalysts that accelerate the rates of biochemical reactions) that employ them. However, the extremely small size of an electron, they weigh less than one million million million million millionth of a kilogram, makes electrons very difficult to study. I use the technique of electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy (it measures the interaction of microwaves with unpaired electrons in a magnetic field) to provide information on the behaviour of unpaired electrons in enzymes that can act as 'green' catalysts for industrial processes, catalyse the biosynthesis of vital tetrapyrrole cofactors (heme, B12), catalyse the biosynthesis of the biological signalling molecule nitric oxide (NO), and activate oxygen for many biosynthetic and degradative processes.... and many others.
Despite being lousy at school biology (and good at physics) I managed to graduate in biochemistry (BSc Hons) from Queen Mary College London in 1983. Having been inspired by lectures on magnetic resonance by Prof Ed Randall at Queen Mary, and having also developed interests in enzymes and electron transfer, I then moved to the Agriculture and Food Research Council’s Nitrogen Fixation Unit (later Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory) at the University of Sussex (Brighton) for my D. Phil., ‘NMR and Nitrogen Fixation’, supervised by Prof Barry Smith. I employed NMR spectroscopy (and a bit of EPR spectroscopy) to study the nitrogenase metalloenzymes and the flavodoxins that transfer electrons to them. I furthered my studies of paramagnetic metalloproteins in 1986 when I took my first postdoctoral position at the University of East Anglia working chiefly on magnetic resonance studies of haem proteins with Prof Geoff Moore and Prof Andy Thomson. I was a founder member of the original SERC Centre for Metalloprotein Spectroscopy and Biology (CMSB) at the UEA. In 1989 I got the opportunity to work on protein NMR with Profs Iain Cambell and Stuart Ferguson, and briefly with Prof R. J. P. 'Bob' Williams, in the Biochemistry Department at Oxford. Even though no paramagnetic electrons were involved I took that opportunity. However, I couldn't stay away from paramagnetism for long. In 1991 I began the final phase of my postdoctoral career at University College London, working initially with Prof Jonathan Nugent and Dr Patrick O'Malley (then at UMIST, now Manchester) and latterly with Prof Mike Evans and Dr Peter Heathcote (subsequently Prof and my Head of School at Queen Mary London). Here I was instrumental in setting up the first electron nuclear double resonance (ENDOR) spectrometer in London (and the second such in the UK, originally located at the old QEC site and joint-owned by UCL and Prof Dick Cammack at King's College London) while working on radicals in higher plant and bacterial photosystems. I also had access to the first pulsed EPR system to be installed in the UK, in Prof Mike Evans' laboratory. Mike and I subsequently obtained funding for the first pulsed ENDOR equipment in the UK. In 1995 I got a 'proper job' (according to my mother) and moved back across London to Queen Mary College again, where I was appointed Lecturer in Biochemistry and subsequently Senior Lecturer in 2003. While at Queen Mary I began collaborating with Prof Martin Warren and Prof Nigel Scrutton, who was then at Leicester University. These became long-term collaborations on enzyme mechanism and dynamics that survived Martin's subsequent move to the University of Kent and Nigel's move to Manchester. Having helped establish the most well equipped biological EPR laboratory in the UK at Queen Mary, I followed Nigel to Manchester in 2008 as Reader in Biological EPR Spectroscopy and set up a new lab in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB, originally the Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre). I continue to enjoy research collaborations with Martin but now have many collaborators at Manchester too, particularly Profs David Leys and Andy Munro. Despite my advancing age I have endeavoured to make an experimental contribution to every paper on which I appear as an author, in addition to an intellectual contribution. That's what makes the job fun!