Dr Sylvia McLain

Dr. Sylvia McLain is a lecturer in Biophysics and Biochemistry at the University of Oxford and runs a research group focused on understanding the interactions between biological molecules in physiologically relevant environments at the atomic and molecular level. She has also written for The Guardian and can be found on twitter @girlinterruptin


What are you working on at the moment?
Water is the elixir of life, yet our understanding of how water contributes to biology is very limited. The research in my group focuses on understanding the microscopic structure of molecules in solution and how hydration of biological molecules – such as drugs and  proteins – affects their function. We use techniques where we investigate these interactions on the atomic scale, which is exciting because can detect the specifics of how water binds to certain molecules to help give rise to their life-giving function. We investigate drugs which cross the blood brain barrier as well as proteins and how they fold up to be able to perform their life-giving functions.

What led you to become a scientist?
A variety of things, I have had several jobs over the course of my life, but have remained fascinated at understanding how the natural world works on a fundamental level. I didn’t arrive at my current position by a standard path – I have a BSc in Zoology, an MSc in Science Education and a PhD in Chemistry. I have also been a field techician in Fisheries for the US National Park Service and laboratory technician in evolutionary genetics. I am never really sure how I ended up running my own research group.    

What one thing should scientists be doing to make the public more aware/interested/engaged in science?
I don’t think there is really any one thing. I think, as we are funded my public money, we should try our best to talk to people about what we do – but there is no single mechanism by which to do this. Scientists should engage at a level they are comfortable with and do a good job with.

If you weren’t/couldn’t be a scientist, what would you like to do?
I would definitely be a philsopher. I love to read and think about things and I think philosophy is very difficult, as opposed to science where the questions we ask are very limited, philosophy covers such a broader topic. I think being a good philosopher is very difficult, but would be very rewardeing.

If money was not an object (and neither were metrics) what would you work on?
I think not anything so entirely different than I do now. However I think what I wrote about for publication would be different.  Currently, my group is trying to overturn a well-established theory where we (and others) have lots of evidence that this theory might be incorrect. Unfortunately, these types of investigations take a very long time and are hard to get funding for.  Long-term funding is a a huge problem is science. Many important investigations take a long time, yet funding bodies usually only fund from 3 – 5 years. 

What do you think has been the most significant (or best/worst) scientific advancement in the last 10 years?
I have no idea. The reason why I have no idea is there is usually a far greater time lag than 10 years in what science ends up being important. Through the history of science many theories that were super important in there time, are lost because they are superceded or just end up being wrong, so it is hard to tell. 

What one piece of technology could you not live without?
My computer!

Tell us about a book that you have read recently that you would recommend?
“I, Claudius” by Robert Graves, it is historical fiction written in 1934, but it is fascinating and historically accurate. I am also a big fan of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

How do you relax?
I am not sure I do relax, but I do a lot of reading and spend time in my garden trying to plant things, but my husband is the better gardener. I also do a bit of DIY which I find nice as it’s good to complete projects like this for a sense of accomplishment