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BBC Radio 4 - The Life Scientific

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

The Life Scientific

  • Dawn Bonfield on inclusive engineering, sustainable solutions and why she once tried to leave the sector for good

    The engineering industry, like many other STEM sectors, has a problem with diversity: one that Dawn Bonfield believes we can and must fix, if we're to get a handle on much more pressing planetary problems...

    Dawn is a materials engineer by background, who held roles at Citroën in France and British Aerospace in the UK. But, after having her third child, she made the difficult decision to leave the industry - as she thought at the time, for good. However a short spell working in post-natal services and childcare gave her new skills and a fresh perspective. This led to Dawn rehabilitating the struggling Women in Engineering Society and creating ‘International Women In Engineering Day’, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

    Today, she’s Professor of Practice in Engineering for Sustainable Development at King’s College London, and the founder of Magnificent Women: a social enterprise celebrating the story of female engineers over the past century. She’s also President of the Commonwealth Engineers’ Council and has had her work supporting diversity and inclusion recognised with an MBE.

    Dawn talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about why 'inclusive engineering' should not be dismissed as tokenism, and why she's optimistic about the engineering sector's power to change the world.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

  • Raymond Schinazi on revolutionising treatments for killer viruses

    In recent decades, we've taken huge steps forward in treating formerly fatal viruses: with pharmacological breakthroughs revolutionising treatment for conditions such as HIV, hepatitis and herpes.

    Raymond Schinazi has played a big role in that revolution.

    Ray was born in Egypt, where his mother’s brush with a potentially deadly illness during his childhood inspired a fascination with medicine. His childhood was scattered: after his family were forced to leave their homeland and travelled to Italy as refugees, Ray ended up on a scholarship to a British boarding school - and subsequently went on to study and flourish in the world of chemistry and biology.

    Today, Ray is the Director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also set up the renowned Center for AIDS Research. His work in the early days of HIV studies led to drugs that many with the virus still take today; while his contribution to developing a cure for Hepatitis C has saved millions of lives around the world.

    Speaking to Jim Al-Khalili, Ray reflects on his route to success - and explains why he's confident that more big breakthroughs are on the horizon.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

  • Janet Treasure on eating disorders and the quest for answers

    From anorexia nervosa to binge-eating, eating disorders are potentially fatal conditions that are traditionally very difficult to diagnose and treat - not least because those affected often don’t recognise that there’s anything wrong. But also because of the diverse factors that can influence and encourage them.

    Janet Treasure is a Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College, London - where she's focused on understanding the drivers behind these disorders, to help develop more effective treatments. Her study of twins in the 1980s offered one of the earliest arguments of a genetic link to anorexia, rather than the purely psychological motivations accepted at the time; while her most recent work explores holistic ways to better treat these conditions.

    Speaking to Jim Al-Khalili, Janet explains the work that's revealed anorexia's roots in both body and mind - as well as how attitudes towards eating disorders are slowly changing.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

  • Anne Child on Marfan syndrome and love at first sight

    Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that makes renders the body’s connective tissues incredibly fragile; this can weaken the heart, leading to potentially fatal aneurysms. What’s more, anyone with the condition has a 50/50 chance of passing it on to their children.

    Dr Anne Child is a clinical geneticist who’s dedicated her professional life to finding answers and solutions for people affected by Marfan’s.

    Born in Canada, she met her British future-husband while working in Montreal in a case she describes as "love at first sight" - and in the 1970s she relocated her life to the UK.

    There, an encounter with a Marfan patient she was unable to help set Anne on a career path for life. She subsequently established the team that discovered the gene responsible for Marfan's, and founded the Marfan Trust to drive further research. Since then, life expectancy for those with the condition has jumped from 32 years old, to over 70.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Anne shares how she and her team achieved this remarkable turnaround.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

  • Conny Aerts on star vibrations and following your dreams

    Many of us have heard of seismology, the study of earthquakes; but what about asteroseismology, focusing on vibrations in stars?

    Conny Aerts is a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Leuven in Belgium - and a champion of this information-rich field of celestial research. Her work has broken new ground in helping to improve our understanding of stars and their structures.

    It hasn’t been an easy path: Conny describes herself as always being “something of an outlier” and she had to fight to follow her dream of working in astronomy. But that determination has paid off - today, Conny is involved in numerous interstellar studies collecting data from thousands of stars, and taking asteroseismology to a whole new level.

    In an epsiode recorded at the 2024 Cheltenham Science Festival, Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to the pioneering Belgian astrophysicist about her lifelong passion for stars, supporting the next generation of scientists, and her determination to tread her own path.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

  • Mike Edmunds on decoding galaxies and ancient astronomical artefacts

    What is the universe made of? Where does space dust come from? And how exactly might one go about putting on a one-man-show about Sir Isaac Newton?

    These are all questions that Mike Edmunds, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University and President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), has tackled during his distinguished career. And although physics is his first love, Mike is fascinated by an array of scientific disciplines - with achievements ranging from interpreting the spread of chemical elements in the Universe, to decoding the world’s oldest-known astronomical artefact.

    Recording in front of an audience at the RAS in London, Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Mike about his life, work and inspirations. And who knows, Sir Isaac might even make an appearance…

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Hannah Critchlow on the connected brain

    With 86 billion nerve cells joined together in a network of 100 trillion connections, the human brain is the most complex system in the known universe.

    Dr. Hannah Critchlow is an internationally acclaimed neuroscientist who has spent her career demystifying and explaining the brain to audiences around the world. Through her writing, broadcasting and lectures to audiences – whether in schools, festivals or online – she has become one of the public faces of neuroscience.

    She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that her desire to understand the brain began when she spent a year after school as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital. The experience of working with young patients - many the same age as her - made her ask what it is within each individual brain which determines people’s very different life trajectories.

    In her books she’s explored the idea that much of our character and behaviour is hard-wired into us before we’re even born. And most recently she’s considered collective intelligence, asking how we can bring all our individual brains together and harness their power in one ‘super brain’.

    And we get to hear Jim’s own mind at work as Hannah attaches electrodes to his head and turns his brain waves into sound.

    Producer: Jeremy Grange

  • Fiona Rayment on the applications of nuclear for net zero and beyond

    The reputation of the nuclear industry has had highs and lows during the career of Dr Fiona Rayment, the President of the Nuclear Institute. But nowadays the role of nuclear science and engineering has become more widely accepted in the quest for carbon net zero.

    Growing up in Hamilton, Scotland during a time of energy insecurity, Fiona was determined to understand more about why her school lacked the energy to heat up all of the classrooms or why there were power cuts causing her to have to do her homework by candlelight - and in nuclear she knew there was a possible solution.

    But it’s not just in clean energy that Fiona has spent her career, she’s also been involved in investigating how nuclear science can be used in treating cancer and space travel, as well as promoting gender diversity in the nuclear industry.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Fiona discusses how she’s always tried to keep close to the science during her career in order to keep her ‘spark’!

    Produced by Jonathan Blackwell

  • Nick Longrich on discovering new dinosaurs from overlooked bones

    We are fascinated by dinosaurs. From blockbuster hits to bestselling video games, skeleton exhibitions to cuddly plushies, the creatures that once roamed the planet have fully captured our imagination, giving us a portal to a completely alternative Earth. And it’s likely new species are still out there, waiting to be found...

    Dr Nick Longrich is a palaeontologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bath, and he studies the dinosaur bones that many have overlooked. By rummaging through the back rooms of museums, he finds traces of never-before-described dinosaurs and goes on the hunt for other specimens to confirm or deny his hunch. Through these adventures, he’s discovered over a dozen new species, painting a more detailed picture of our prehistoric world.

    Nick is also fascinated by rare ‘one in a million year’ events – like asteroid collisions or mega volcanic eruptions – and investigates how the event that wiped out the dinosaurs created the world we live in today. From an Island off the coast of Alaska, Jim Al-Khalili discovers how Nicks early immersion in nature has trained his brain to spot the subtle differences in the world around us that many would overlook.

    Produced by Julia Ravey.

  • Sheila Willis on using science to help solve crime

    Dr Sheila Willis is a forensic scientist who was Director General of Forensic Science Ireland for many years.

    She has spent her life using science to help solve cases, working on crime scenes and then analysing material in the lab, and presenting scientific evidence in court.

    It’s a complicated business. Forensic science relies on powerful technology, such as DNA analysis, but it cannot be that alone - it’s also about human judgement, logical reasoning and asking the right questions.

    It is these fundamentals of forensic science that Sheila has fought for through her long career and what she fears may be becoming lost from the field now.

    We find out what happens when the two very different worlds of science and the law clash in the courtroom. How to walk the line of presenting scientific evidence where there is pressure to be definitive where often science cannot be - and what this part of the job has in common with food packaging.

    And what makes a good forensic scientist?

    We’ll turn the studio at London’s Broadcasting House into a live crime scene to see if host Professor Jim Al-Khalili would be any good as a forensic investigator…

    Produced by Gerry Holt

  • Sir Charles Godfray on parasitic wasps and the race to feed nine billion people

    Professor Charles Godfray, Director of the the Oxford Martin School tells Jim Al-Kahlili about the intricate world of population dynamics, and how a healthy obsession with parasitic wasps might help us solve some of humanity's biggest problems, from the fight against Malaria to sustainably feeding a global community of 9 billion people.

  • Jonathan Van-Tam on Covid communication and the power of football analogies

    Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, or ‘JVT’ as he's arguably better known, first came to widespread public attention in his role as Deputy Chief Medical Officer during the Covid-19 pandemic.

    But even before that, Jonathan had built an impressive career based on a long-held fascination with respiratory illness and infectious diseases. He’s worked across the public and private sectors, contributing significantly to improving our understanding of influenza and treatments to address such viruses.

    It’s hard to believe that back in his teens, JVT – the man who advised the nation on pandemic precautions and helped make the UK’s vaccine roll-out possible – nearly didn’t get the grades he needed to go to medical school. But early challenges aside, Jonathan went on to discover a love for both medical research and public speaking: making complex public health messages easier to digest – not least by using analogies relating to his beloved football.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili in the first episode of a new series of The Life Scientific, Jonathan discusses his life and career: from academic emphasis in childhood and imposter syndrome at medical school, to pandemic pressures around Covid-19 and big birthday celebrations.

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Michael Wooldridge on AI and sentient robots

    Humans have a long-held fascination with the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a dystopian threat: from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, through to the Terminator movies.

    But somehow, we still often think of this technology as 'futuristic': whereas in fact, it's already woven into the fabric of our daily lives, from facial recognition software to translator apps. And if we get too caught up in the entertaining sci-fi narrative around AI and the potential threat from machines, there's a more pressing danger that we overlook real and present concerns - from deep fakes to electoral disinformation.

    That's why Michael Wooldridge is determined to demystify AI and explain how it can improve our lives, in a whole host of different ways. A Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, and the Director of Foundational AI Research at the Alan Turing Institute, Mike believes the most common fears around this technology are "misplaced".

    In a special 300th edition of The Life Scientific, recorded in front of an audience at London's Royal Institution (RI), Mike tells Jim Al-Khalili how he will use this year's prestigious RI Christmas Lectures to lift the lid on modern AI technology and discuss how far it could go in future.

    Mike also reminiscences about the days when sending an email was a thrilling novelty, discusses why people love talking to him about the Terminator at parties, and is even challenged to think up a novel future use of AI by ChatGPT...

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Mercedes Maroto-Valer on making carbon dioxide useful

    How do you solve a problem like CO2? As the curtain closes on the world’s most important climate summit, we talk to a scientist who was at COP 28 and is working to solve our carbon dioxide problem. Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer thinks saving the planet is still Mission Possible - but key to success is turning the climate-busting gas, CO2, into something useful. And as Director of the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University and the UK’s Decarbonisation Champion, she has lots of innovative ideas on how to do this. She also has a great climate-themed suggestion for what you should say when someone asks your age… Produced by Gerry Holt

  • Sir Harry Bhadeshia on the choreography of metals

    The Life Scientific zooms in to explore the intricate atomic make-up of metal alloys, with complex crystalline arrangements that can literally make or break structures integral to our everyday lives.

    Professor Sir Harry Bhadeshia is Professor of Metallurgy at Queen Mary University of London and Emeritus Tata Steel Professor of Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. He’s been described as a ‘steel innovator’ – developing multiple new alloys with a host of real-world applications, from rail tracks to military armour.

    Harry’s prolific work in the field has earned him widespread recognition and a Knighthood; but it's not always been an easy ride... From his childhood in Kenya and an enforced move to the UK as a teenager, to the years standing up to those seeking to discredit the new path he was forging in steel research - Jim Al-Khalili discovers that Harry's achievements have required significant determination, as well as hard work.

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Cathie Sudlow on data in healthcare

    “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.

  • Sir Michael Berry on phenomena in physics' borderlands

    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

  • Professor Sarah Harper on how population change is remodelling societies.

    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

  • Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on human evolution and parenthood

    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.

  • Edward Witten on 'the theory of everything'

    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.

  • Alex Antonelli on learning from nature's biodiversity to adapt to climate change

    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

  • Paul Murdin on the first ever identification of a black hole

    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.

  • Bahija Jallal on the biotech revolution in cancer therapies

    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

  • Sir Colin Humphreys on electron microscopes, and the thinnest material in the world

    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

  • Chris Barratt on head-banging sperm and a future male contraceptive pill

    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.

  • Gideon Henderson on climate ‘clocks’ and dating ice ages

    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.

  • Deborah Greaves on wave power and offshore renewable energy

    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.

  • Harald Haas on making waves in light communication

    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.

  • Anne Ferguson-Smith on unravelling epigenetics

    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 on fighting for diversity and equality in science

    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.

  • Bruce Malamud on modelling risk for natural hazards

    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.

  • Gillian Reid on making chemistry count

    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

  • Andre Geim on levitating frogs, graphene and 2D materials

    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.

  • Julie Williams on Alzheimer’s disease

    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

  • James Jackson on understanding earthquakes and building resilience

    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.

  • Marie Johnston on health psychology and the power of behavioural shifts

    Marie Johnston is a pioneer in the field of health psychology: the discipline that seeks to understand how psychological, behavioural and cultural factors contribute to our physical and mental health. Today an emeritus professor in health psychology at the University of Aberdeen, her career exploring behavioural interventions has shown that even the subtlest shift in how we act can dramatically change our behaviour and lives for the better – whether that’s in an individual recovering from a stroke, or a nation coming to terms with pandemic safety measures, while her work setting up the UK’s first stress management clinic showed why mental health support needed to come out of psychiatric hospitals and into general practice. Marie tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the right interventions can be a powerful tool in improving public health, and indeed our healthcare system; and how an accident at the hairdresser's many years ago helped her become more approachable...

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Julia King on manipulating metals and decarbonising transport

    Professor Dame Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is an engineer whose fascination with metals, and skill for handling both research projects and people, has taken her from academia to industry to the House of Lords.

    She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the dressmaking skills she learnt from her mother as a child helped her to understand the composite structures used in wind turbines later in life. And how she designed metal alloys that are resistant to both large and small cracks.

    As the author of the UK government's Review of Low Carbon Cars in 2007, Julia set out a route to decarbonising a major segment of the transport sector within 25 years, making an important contribution to the UK's plans to try and achieve Net Zero.

    But achieving Net Zero is not enough. With demand for electricity set to double or treble by 2050, there’s an urgent need to radically reform our national infrastructure and guarantee supply.

    Julia became a cross-bench member of the House of Lords in 2015. She’s now chair of its Science and Technology Committee, holding the government to account on its promise to make the UK a science superpower.

  • Danny Altmann on how T cells fight disease

    Jim Al-Khalili talks T cells, our immune response and Long Covid with Prof Danny Altmann.

    Danny Altmann joined ‘team T cells’ in his twenties and has been studying how these killer operate ever since. How do they know which cells to search and destroy? The T cell wing of our immune response is highly targeted and incredibly clever, on a par with the most sophisticated military intelligence operation and in recent decades there have been dramatic advances in our understanding of how it all works .

    Danny tells Jim how he came to study our immune response to all sorts of pathogens, from anthrax to zika, why he spends every morning from 5 to 6am in the bath reading 19th century classics and why he’s determined to try and understand Long Covid. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Haley Gomez on cosmic dust

    Jim Al-Khalili talks to astrophysicist Haley Gomez about defying expectations and becoming a world expert on cosmic dust.

    For centuries, cosmic dust was a major source of irritation to optical astronomers because, like smog, it stopped them from seeing the stars. Now studies of these tiny particles are challenging some deeply held assumptions about the physics of the universe.

    Haley’s research has changed the textbook explanation of how cosmic dust is formed and helped to open our eyes to just how many galaxies there are in the universe.

    In 2018 she was awarded an MBE for services to physics and inspiring the next generation of physicists and astronomers from less privileged communities. A cause which is very close to her heart.

    Produced by Anna Buckley and recorded in the Pier Head Building in Cardiff as part of the Cardiff Science Festival.

  • Adrian Smith on the power of Bayesian statistics

    How a once-derided approach to statistics paved the way for AI. Jim Al-Khalili talks to pioneering mathematician, Professor Sir Adrian Smith.

    Accused early in his career of ‘trying to destroy the processes of science’, Adrian went on to prove that a branch of statistics (invented by the Reverend Thomas Bayes in 1764) could be used by computers to analyse vast sets of data and to learn from that data.

    His mathematical proofs showed that Bayesian statistics could be applied to all sorts of real world problems: from improving survival rates for kidney transplant patients to tracking Russian submarines. And paved the way for a dramatic explosion in machine learning and AI.

    Working as a civil servant (2008-2012) he helped to protect the science budget in 2010, transforming the landscape for scientific research in the UK. And he has been vocal, over many years, about the urgent need to make sure children in the UK leave school more mathematically able.

    In 2020, he became President of the UK's prestigious national science academy, The Royal Society. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Clifford Johnson on making sense of black holes and movie plots

    Clifford Johnson's career to date has spanned some seemingly very different industries - from exploring quantum mechanics around string theory and black holes, to consulting on some of Hollywood's biggest movies; but it makes sense once you understand his ambition of making science accessible to all. A Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Clifford's worked in the United States for decades – but was born in the UK, then spent his formative years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, before moving back to England to study. Here, he fell in love with quantum mechanics - before moving to the US, where he's broken new ground in finding ways to talk about quantum gravity and black holes. Clifford's other big passion is getting as many people as possible engaged with science, making it more exciting, entertaining and most importantly diverse - and it's this attitude that's led to regular work as a science consultant on various TV shows and films; and even a recent cameo in a major movie...

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Rebecca Kilner on beetle behaviours and evolution

    A fur-stripped mouse carcase might not sound like the cosiest of homes – but that’s where the burying beetle makes its nest; and where Rebecca Kilner has focused much of her research. A Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge, Rebecca’s work – initially with cuckoos, then more recently with the beetles – has shed invaluable light on the relationship between social behaviours and evolution. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the beetles’ helpfully swift generational churn and mouse-based parenting has allowed her team to study evolution in action, demonstrating for the first time what was previously just evolutionary theory.

    Producer: Lucy Taylor

  • Pam Shaw on the research battle against motor neurone disease

    Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is a degenerative disease that relentlessly attacks the human nervous system, deteriorating muscle function to the point where patients can no longer move, talk, eat, or even breathe.

    To date there’s no cure, and until fairly recently there were only minimal treatments to ease the symptoms.

    Pam Shaw has dedicated her career to changing that.

    A Professor of Neurology at Sheffield University and Founding Director of the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, she recently led clinical trials into a drug that delivered unprecedented results: showing that it could slow the progression of MND in certain patients, and even improve symptoms for some.

    It’s just one small step – but with a new tranche of research funding and a national institute to study the disease on the cards, Pamela believes this could be the start of real progress in understanding and treating Motor Neuron Disease.

    Producer: Lucy Taylor

  • Chris Elliott on fighting food fraud

    Professor Chris Elliott is something of a ‘food detective’. A Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen's University Belfast and a founding director of its Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS), his work is all about developing scientific solutions to protect us from contaminated food, be it accidental or criminal.

    Following the 2013 horse meat scandal – when prepared foods purporting to be made from beef were found to contain undeclared horse-meat – Chris conducted the independent review of the UK food system that brought to light the growing threat of food crime. Since then, his name’s become synonymous with solving cases of food fraud; today he receives regular tip-offs on everything from oregano scams to dodgy potatoes.

    But as Chris tells Jim Al-Khalili, his team at the IGFS are pioneering new techniques to read the molecular fingerprint of foodstuffs, with technology that they hope will stop the fraudsters in their tracks…

    Producer: Lucy Taylor

  • A passion for fruit flies

    What use to science is a pesky organism that feeds on rotting fruit? Professor Bambos Kyriacou has spent fifty years observing the behaviour of fruit flies. He keeps them in the lab and in his garden in their thousands, has recorded fruit fly courtship songs using a microphone loved by Jonny Carson (because it made his voice sound deeper) and invented equipment to keep track of their sleeping patterns. He tells Jim Al-Khalili how fruit flies sparked his interest in genetics and how experiments with insomniac fruit flies opened our eyes to the fundamental importance of body clocks.