One man, one bike, and lots of genomics.
By Ali Cranage, Science Writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
Cycling and genomics may not seem like natural partners, but they fit together perfectly in Alex’s mind. He is combining his two passions, using them for good. In 2018 he started ‘Scicling’ – bringing cutting-edge science to secondary schools across the globe,via cycling. He wants to inspire the next generation of scientists. He wants them to know that scientists are normal people, who sometimes ride bikes, too.
Earlier this year he cycled 700km in 15 days, reaching eight high schools on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. He ran sessions on genomics at the forefront of innovation, reaching over 500 pupils. Now, he is heading to Uruguay.
Bringing genomics to the classroom
Alex showcased the latest genomics to the classes, demonstrating how it is being used in healthcare, to track outbreaks of dangerous pathogens, to diagnose and treat disease as well as how it is being used to understand evolution and biodiversity.
The kids also got hands on in sessions where they had to come up with a plan to defeat malaria, or extract DNA from strawberries. Alex says the interaction was amazing. At almost every school he was asked to stay later, or to speak to other classes, or to the teachers, or run an evening session for adults. “The memories will stay with me forever. One teacher told me that in their 22 years of teaching, they had never seen a class so quiet, listening so attentively,” Alex says.
“I aim to help people appreciate science. It has shaped our entire world, from the light switch we flick on in the morning, to the phones in our pockets to the medicines available to us. I always start my sessions by asking the kids who wants to be a scientist. Only one or two hands ever go up. I hope that by the end, more are thinking that it could be something for them. I think it helps when I tell them I had the opportunity to become a professional footballer – but I turned it down to study science. That’s surprising to a lot of them!” Alex’s natural enthusiasm is infectious, it’s easy to imagine how classes become completely captivated.
When he’s not scicling, 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. It has around 5,000 genes in its genome, 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 on the development of new antimalarial drugs.
Becoming a scientist
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,” Alex says.
On his trip to the Canary Islands, Alex was supported by the Enabling Fund from the Wellcome Genome Campus Public Engagement team, as well as the Government of the Canary Islands. In Uruguay, he is supported by his manager and Director of Connecting Science, Julian Rayner, the International Mentoring Programme, IMFAHE, and the Uruguayan Secondary Schools Council (CES). He is extremely grateful for everyone who has helped him.
He’s keen to find any kindred spirits who might want to undertake something similar, anywhere in the world. 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.