Interviews with Scientists: Chris Hoyle
Chris is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Manchester. He is investigating the role and regulation of inflammation in the brain, particularly in diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer's.
We spoke to Chris about his PhD, his groundbreaking discovery about graphene that could have a major impact on healthcare in future, what this discovery means for the future of his research, and more.
Hi Chris, it’s great to speak with you! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your PhD...
I’m based in the Brain Inflammation Group at the University of Manchester, which is quite a large group that focuses on the role of neuroinflammation in disease, particularly looking at stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. I work in David Brough’s lab, which focuses more specifically on the regulation of inflammation in disease by protein complexes called inflammasomes.
Recently I’ve been trying to understand how graphene, a nanomaterial discovered in Manchester in 2004, can affect these inflammasomes. This is important because people want to use graphene in biology, and so we need to understand how it might interact with our bodies, and particularly our immune system, which is there to protect us from foreign substances.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
For a long time I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then around the age of 15 I thought about a career in medicine, and actually did some work experience in a hospital. I really enjoyed it, but began to drift away from the idea of medicine. But I still loved biology, so science, or scientific research, seemed like the next logical step! I then went on to study Biomedical Science at the University of Manchester, before changing to Neuroscience in my second year, as I quickly realised this was where my main interest was. During this period I worked at the University of Sheffield over one summer for Professor Richard Eastell to get more experience in a lab, and completed an industrial placement at Boehringer Ingelheim in Germany for a year. Both of these experiences were what really convinced me that science was for me, and I worked closely with some great people whom I found pretty inspiring.
You recently made a ground-breaking discovery around graphene. Can you tell us more about what you found?
I found that a particular form of graphene, called graphene oxide, has an interesting effect on certain immune cells. It causes changes in the metabolism of macrophage cells, which appears to affect the inflammatory response of these cells when we subsequently activate them (using bacterial products for example, which is what can normally activate our immune cells).
Graphene oxide limits the pro-inflammatory response of the cells. This is important as it tells us more about the effects that graphene oxide might have if we want to use it in a biomedical setting. However, much more research is required before we can be sure what impact this might have on healthcare in the future, as we need to fully understand how graphene interacts with our bodies. But it is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of facilitating the use of graphene in healthcare in the future.
Your discovery has been described as 'serendipitous'. How did it feel to not only uncover something that was completely unexpected, but to realise that nobody else had found it before?
To discover anything I think is a pretty cool feeling, and one that I’m sure never gets old (although having made a grand total of one discovery, I’ll have to get back to you on this). I think it was only serendipitous in the sense that originally I was predominantly meant to be using carbon nanotubes, a different type of nanomaterial, and I had to do some preliminary tests with these nanotubes. During these tests I was also testing graphene oxide, just in case it was better than the nanotubes, and that’s when I first noticed that it might be anti-inflammatory. I took this idea to my supervisor, who then gave me the go ahead to investigate it further, and that’s how the project developed into what it is now. But this flexible approach is how scientific research is performed, and how new discoveries are often made. You perform an experiment, get the result, and then adapt by designing a new experiment based on this result.
What impact has your discovery had on the direction of your research, and what are your next steps?
It massively altered the direction of my research, as I was never really meant to be using graphene in the first place. And even when I began to work with graphene, it was still a bit of a side project, but it became more and more interesting until it eventually became my project, and now here I am almost two years later!
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?
The perception of scientists or academic research is a big issue currently. I recently attended a talk by Giles Yeo (who has featured on BBC Horizon) in which he cleverly demonstrated the public perception of scientists. If you google ‘academics are’ and look at the suggested search options provided by google, ‘arrogant’ is the top hit, meaning that this is what has been most googled (‘useless’ is second in the list). I think the onus really is on scientists to change this perception. It’s easy to get lost in the little research bubble, but getting the public more engaged with the work that we’re doing will surely benefit everyone!
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Don’t worry about asking stupid questions. Stupid questions generally give you the most useful answers, and it’s much better to ask these questions right at the start when you’re not expected to know the answer! Also don’t forget to enjoy your life outside of the lab too, it shouldn’t be defined by your PhD.
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
A typical day usually will involve lots of going between my desk and the lab. I normally spend a fair amount of time in the lab, either preparing experiments, running experiments or analysing the samples from these experiments, all of which takes longer than you might think, especially as you have to repeat your experiments several times to be confident of the result. At my desk I might be reading papers (which I really should do more of), or working on reports, papers or presentations, for example. It comes in waves, as sometimes I’ll spend most of the day in the lab, but at other times I could be at my desk for most of the week, depending on what deadlines are approaching.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
I spend a lot of my time watching or playing football and cricket. I’m a Huddersfield Town season ticket holder, and am a proud supporter of Yorkshire CCC. Since my year abroad in Germany I’ve also developed a serious desire to travel, so I take any opportunities that I’m lucky enough to get to do this.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I think I would have strongly considered going into teaching. In my limited time as a PhD student, I’ve really enjoyed the teaching opportunities that I’ve had, whether that be demonstrating in the undergraduate lab practicals, or supervising undergraduate students who are doing their final year project in our lab.
What’s your favourite science quote?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.’”
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Vaccines. Not the band.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Chris. We wish you the very best of luck with your research, and we’re sure there’ll be many more exciting discoveries to come!
Follow Chris on Twitter at @choyle22
Read Chris’s publication here
Read the blog post about Chris’s graphene discovery here
Additional resources for PhD students and early career life scientists
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- The Life Scientists' Guide to Wellbeing
- The Life Scientists' Guide for New PhD Students
- The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them
- View all of our guides
- Apply for a Travel Grant: every month we give away $500 to PhD students and Postdocs so that they can attend a scientific conference. Give it a go - it's really easy to apply.
- If you enjoyed this interview, you can read advice from other scientists - in our Interviews with Scientists' series
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