Cycling and genomics may not seem like natural partners, but they fit together perfectly in Alex’s mind. He wanted to combine his two passions, use them for good, and so arrived at ‘Scicling’. He’s now one very happy man on a mission.
Alex is planning to cycle to every high school on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura in 15 days, reaching about 400 14 year old pupils with his session on cutting edge genomics. He wants to inspire the next generation of scientists. He wants them to know that scientists are normal people, who sometimes ride bikes, too.
Alex is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sanger Institute where his current research focus is on malaria. The disease kills an estimated 445,000 people a year – mostly young children in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2016, there were 216 million cases of malaria in 91 countries.
Together with researchers based in Kilifi, Kenya and Cambridge, he is investigating why some people are naturally resistant to malaria infections. He is also studying the genes of one of the malaria parasites that affect humans, Plasmodium knowlesi. The parasite has around 6,000 genes, but we only know the function of half of them. By understanding their functions and their interactions with genes in humans, he hopes to make an impact.
“It might not be now, or next year, but maybe in 10 years’ time my research will make a difference to people’s lives.”
Alex didn’t start his career with the intention of studying genomics. He just loved science, and knew he wanted to work in it somehow. He originally trained as a vet, and has since undertaken two masters and a PhD. He’s worked in Kenya, Brazil, Ireland, Sweden, Italy, USA, Spain and the UK in academia as well as commercial companies.
He aims to share both his passion for science and his career journey.
“Being in a laboratory and talking to other scientists is amazing. You come to the realisation that there may only be one other person in the whole world doing what you’re doing.”
“There’s not just one way to become a scientist, there are hundreds. If the kids see me, they might think that they can do it too.”
Genomics for the next generation
Alex will be showcasing the latest genomic science to the classes, demonstrating how it is being used in healthcare, to track outbreaks, diagnose and treat disease as well as how it is being used to understand evolution and biodiversity.
The kids will also get a hands-on session where they have to come up with a plan to defeat malaria. The session has been developed by the public engagement team at the Wellcome Genome Campus. Available online, with 3D animations, microscope images, films and interviews, it’s proven to work well for students. Perhaps the most essential feature is that the session doesn’t need a lot of equipment or materials, so Alex can travel light.
On yer bike
Alex can’t wait to get on his bike. He’s still planning his route but there are probably 500 kilometres to cover in the three weeks. “I don’t know how it’s going to go. I don’t know yet where I’m going to stay either” he grins. “It’s so exciting.”
It’s another message for the kids, too, getting them to think about being healthy and living sustainably.
Alex has funding for his trip from the Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement Enabling Fund, and backing from the Government of the Canary Islands. He’s so grateful to everyone who’s supporting him.
You can follow Alex on Twitter already, and he’ll be on Instagram too after he sets off in April.
He’s keen to find any kindred spirits who might want to undertake something similar. All potential sciclists can get in touch with Alex via his website https://scicling.org/contact-us/
Find out more
Alex’s website https://scicling.org/
The resources for schools are available on the YourGenome website.