Joined: 16 Mar 2004
|Posted: Fri Sep 01, 2006 12:09 pm Post subject: 20 Scottish Scientists Shaping our Future
|An introduction by Professor Anne Glover, the new Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Executive, and a professor of microbiology at Aberdeen University
If you asked people in Scotland about their culture, they might talk about our music, sculpture, art, poetry, buildings, or even our whisky production. But they might never think to mention that Scotland has really terrific scientists.
Science is part of Scotland's identity. We have a strong heritage and it's part of our future. This article highlights people who are not only excellent scientists, but the science they have done actually makes a difference to our lives.
So why aren't they household names? I think it's partly because science has fallen out of our culture. But it's also because in centuries past, science was an individual pursuit. It was a lot easier to take a discovery and identify a main person who was responsible for it. Nowadays, in almost every area of research, we rely on team-working.
That's the way science is going. The upside is that cooperating with scientists in other disciplines makes you think out of the box a lot more. The downside is that we might not create famous characters to inspire future generations of scientists.
It's people that are inspirational generally, rather than objects. The scientists here are all characters. Every one. Scientists are incurably inquisitive, and that curiosity has gained Scotland international recognition in a number of fields.
We are a small nation and we can never compete on the basis of size, but we have always have been able to compete on the basis of excellence in science, ingenuity and inventiveness. We need to ensure we keep that ability in the future, because that's where our success is going to come from. That's how we're going to ensure the health and wealth of our nation.
20 SCOTTISH SCIENTISTS SHAPING OUR FUTURE
1. PROFESSOR STEPHEN SALTER - INVENTOR OF WAVE POWER
Stephen Salter, 65, is a maverick. The "grandfather of wave power" has a portfolio of inventions that includes a machine which can make it rain in the desert and a road ferry for the Forth Road Bridge. Salter emerged on the scene in the 1970s, when he created Salter's Ducks – elliptical floating chambers which converted the oscillations of waves into rotary motion capable of generating electricity. Having now officially retired as Professor of Engineering at Edinburgh University, he has turned his attention to climate change. His solution? A fleet of boats that spray droplets of sea water into the sky, creating a particular subset of clouds which reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere. Just 50 of these boats would be enough to offset the annual temperature rise from carbon dioxide emissions, he says. With renewable energy coming of age due to global warming, Professor Salter is seeing a revival of interest in his work and that of his proteges.
2. DAVID MILNE - iPOD AUDIO CHIPS
"If you walk into Dixons, almost anything on the shelf that makes a noise has our chips inside," says David Milne, 63, Chairman of Edinburgh firm Wolfson Microelectronics. "We supply chips into the Apple iPod, the Microsoft Xbox and the Sony PSP. The leading Japanese hi-fi companies – Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic – all use our chips. Mobile phones and GPS systems all have them, as do digital cameras. No wonder that Wolfson Microelectronics is the largest and the most profitable university spin-off in Scotland. Milne founded the company in 1985, when he was a Professor of micro-electronics at Edinburgh University. By 1995 Wolfson had begun creating and manufacturing its own products – tiny, tightly-packaged audio chips. "Our chip's strength is offering high performance at very low power, which means that in portable devices, such as the iPod Nano, the battery lasts longer."
The chips are mixed signal – they convert analogue signals into digital and vice versa. "Our breakthrough was to develop designs allowing these two to work together," Milne says.
3. PROFESSOR PETER HIGGS - PREDICTED THE HIGGS BOSON
Peter Higgs's theory solves one of the biggest mysteries in physics – but the proof has never yet been found. Capturing the elusive Higgs boson is the greatest prize in particle physics. It has been nicknamed the "god particle" because it completes the standard model, the rules which govern the behaviour of all matter in the universe.
In 1964, Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University predicted the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson. Although it has not turned up in accelerator experiments so far, the Higgs mechanism is generally accepted. Detecting the Higgs boson would represent an enormous breakthrough in particle physics.
4. PROFESSOR SIR DAVID LANE - DISCOVERED A KEY CANCER GENE
This was arguably the most important cancer gene discovery ever made. It happened in a Dundee University laboratory in 1979, when Professor David Lane identified p53, a protein believed to play a role in as many as half of all human cancers. It helps protect cells from becoming cancerous – but if the p53 gene becomes mutated, tumours can form. Such tumours are often resistant to chemotherapy. "We hope to use our knowledge of p53 to develop new treatments for cancer," says Sir David. "In the test tube at least, we are beginning to find ways to make these damaged p53s work again." He is currently on a two-year sabbatical from Dundee University, as executive director of Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology.
5. PROFESSOR KAREN VOUSDEN - DIRECTOR, BEATSON INSTITUTE
Karen Vousden, 49, was appointed director of the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow after being head-hunted from the US National Cancer Research Institute in Maryland. Her research interests have latterly focused on the p53 gene. "We are at a point of understanding the molecular biology of cancer so we can start identifying targets we would like to exploit for developing drugs," she says. "We can now try to do something to help patients, which is our ultimate goal."
6. PROFESSOR SIR PHILIP COHEN - DISCOVERED HOW INSULIN WORKS
Sir Philip Cohen's breakthroughs in the biochemistry of diabetes, cancer and other major diseases have paved the way for vital new therapeutic drugs. Cohen, 61, who is director of the Wellcome Trust Biocentre in Dundee, is best known as the man who discovered how insulin works. He is now "trying my luck one last time" in a completely new area – how the body deals with infection in chronic inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. He continues to play a pivotal role in establishing Dundee as one of the world's leading centres for life-science research.
7. SIR WILLIAM STEWART - SCIENTIFIC ADVISER TO THE GOVERNMENT
Born in Islay, but now resident in Dundee, Sir William "Bill" Stewart is the head of the Health Protection Agency, advising the government on topics as diverse as MRSA, nuclear power and vCJD. He is best known as the author of the influential Stewart report, assessing the health risks of mobile phones. After studying botany at Glasgow University, Stewart's science career began as a microbiologist at Dundee University, looking at photosynthetic bacteria. He now spends virtually all his time at the Health Protection Agency. The policies that the HPA are implementing reflect on every corner of our society.
8. PROFESSOR SHEILA ROWAN - SEARCHING FOR GRAVITY WAVES
First predicted by Einstein, gravity waves have remained elusive. The theory is that major cosmic events cause ripples in gravity that can be felt throughout the universe. Rowan and her colleagues at Glasgow University are leading the world's race to find them, and perhaps even scoop a Nobel prize. Gravitational waves will open up a whole new branch of astronomy, and could have far-reaching applications on earth. The race is now on, and the Glasgow group is competing with groups in the US and Germany to set up high-power laser light to make the breakthrough.
9. IAN WILMUT - CREATOR, DOLLY THE SHEEP
With the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the world woke up to the power of genetic engineering. Wilmut was this year appointed as the first director of Edinburgh University's new Centre for Regenerative Medicine. He aims to experiment with new stem-cell therapies on terminally ill patients. Transplanting stem cells into patients could help reverse damage caused by illness or conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease.
10. PROFESSOR SIR ALFRED CUSCHIERI - PIONEER OF KEYHOLE SURGERY
Keyhole surgery accounts for an estimated 45-50% of all operations carried out in the UK. It was used for the first time in Britain to remove a woman's gall bladder in 1987 at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri, 67, performed the operation and pioneered the technique in Britain. Keyhole surgery reduces the trauma to the patient, and speeds up recovery times. Sir Alfred's technique has been adopted internationally for various procedures. Born in Malta, Sir Alfred moved to Scotland and the University of Dundee in 1976, where he eventually became Head of the Academic Department of Surgery and Molecular Oncology at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School. He is now helping to establish the Institute of Medical Science and Technology, to develop the next generation of technologies for minimal-access surgery, including a cancer treatment which eliminates the need for chemotherapy or surgery. Cuschieri is awaiting permission for the first human trial, at Ninewells.
11. DR. COLIN McINNES - INVENTED "SOLAR SAILS" FOR SPACECRAFT
The idea of sending a solar sailing ship into space used to be confined to the novels of Arthur C Clarke. That was until Colin McInnes discovered a practical and relatively cheap way of achieving the seemingly impossible. McInnes, an aerospace engineer at Strathclyde University, has worked on solar sails for a decade, designing sails for the European Space Agency. His sails are coated in special charged particles, which allow the force of sunlight to "blow" the ship in a particular direction. The sail can be tilted to steer the ship, just as an ordinary sail would. Solar sails must be of enormous diameter, but small enough to be propelled on a rocket. The trick is to make them thin – two thousandths of a millimetre thick, allowing them to be packed into a space the size of a fridge. Once in space, the crafts would start slowly – getting to the moon would take about a year – but with no resistance, a ship would slowly accelerate up to speeds of around 16,000mph, allowing it to sail off into deep space. Solar sails might one day be used to alter the course of asteroids headed for earth, by reflecting light onto the asteroid, altering its course. McInnes was recently awarded £300,000 to run computer simulations to work out the feasibility of such a strategy.
12. PROFESSOR SIR KENNETH MURRAY- CREATED VACCINE FOR HEPATITIS B
Ken Murray's vaccine has saved the lives of millions worldwide. The 75-year-old was appointed to Edinburgh University in 1967, where he began by pioneering recombinant DNA technology – the foundation of genetic engineering. He used the newly discovered techniques to clone the hepatitis B virus, and create a vaccine, marketed by his firm, Biogen. Murray is now a multi-millionaire and a celebrated philanthropist, having given away a vast amount for the advancement of science through the Darwin Trust, which supports the training of scientists in deprived areas.
13. PROFESSOR SIR JAMES BLACK - DISCOVERED BETA-BLOCKER DRUGS
No other pharmacologist can claim discovery of two block-buster drugs in such different fields. Sir James Whyte Black, 81, received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988 for his development of two important drugs, propranolol and cimetidine. Born in Uddingston and educated at St Andrews, Black joined the Wellcome Research Laboratories as director of therapeutic research in 1978. He wanted to find a drug that would relieve angina pectoris, the pain felt in the chest when the heart is not receiving enough oxygen. To achieve this, he developed a drug that would reduce the heart's demand, by blocking the beta receptor sites in the heart muscle. Other beta-blocking agents were subsequently developed to treat heart attacks, hypertension, migraines and other conditions. Black used a similar approach to develop a drug treatment for stomach ulcers. He later became professor of analytical pharmacology at King's College London in 1984, and Chancellor of Dundee University from 1992.
14. PROFESSOR ANNA DOMINICZAK- EXPLORED GENETICS OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
Anna Dominiczak first graduated in medicine in Gdansk, Poland, and came to Glasgow in 1982 to work as a junior house officer at the city's Royal Infirmary. Two decades on, she is one of the world's foremost medical researchers in cardiovascular health. Dominiczak is the Director of the British Heart Foundation Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre. Her task is to identify genes which predispose whole families to heart disease, hypertension and stroke. "To say that heart disease is just a matter of diet is a massive oversimplification. I see whole families where all the male members have had heart attacks before they are 50. That's not just environment."
"Our aim is to remove the west of Scotland's top position in the league of those suffering from cardiovascular disease and replace it with the reputation of being the best in the world at tackling it."
15. PROFESSOR IAN FRAZER - DISCOVERED CERVICAL CANCER VACCINE
Ian Frazer, 54, is perhaps the only Scot ever to have been named Australian of the Year. Frazer, who was born in Scotland and studied medicine at Edinburgh University, has spent the majority of his career working at the University of Queensland. It was there, as the leader of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research, that Frazer made his breakthrough. Cervical cancer, caused by the human papilloma virus, affects 500,000 women a year worldwide. Frazer's vaccine, Gardasil, has the potential to prevent about 70% of these cases.
16. DR BARBARA SPRUCE - FOUND ALTERNATIVES TO CHEMOTHERAPY
Dr Barbara Spruce, 49, has identified an Achilles heel in cancer cells, and a drug which causes many of them to self-destruct without harming normal cells. The discovery led Dr Spruce, who is based at Ninewells Hospital and Medical School at Dundee University, to be the first recipient of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Gannochy Trust Innovation Award. The main advantage of her discovery, an existing drug once used to treat schizophrenia, is that the treatment appears to be largely devoid of side-effects and could be used alone or alongside conventional cancer therapies. When used with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, dosages of these could be reduced, lessening side-effects in turn, and treatments could be tailored specifically to patients' needs. Dr Spruce believes the drug has the promise to be used against multiple cancer types. She is awaiting funding for a first human trial.
17. JOCELYN BELL BURNELL - DISCOVERED PULSARS
Pulsars are the navigational beacons of the space travellers of the future. They were discovered "completely by accident" in 1967 by a young a PhD student at Cambridge, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a graduate of Glasgow University. Her find was that dying stars send out pulses of radio waves which sweep like a beam from a lighthouse, in an individual signal which could give interstellar travellers a means of finding their way around vast distances of space. Bell said the discovery was made "completely by accident". "I had been studying the far reaches of the outer universe when I noticed something strange and at first thought something was wrong with the equipment," she says. "But once we realised what it was, it was a truly marvellous feeling and I feel very honoured to have found the first. "Pulsars will help humans survive in space and my only regret is that I won't be around to see it." Bell Burnell is now Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and holds the chair of physics at the Open University.
18. PROFESSOR SIR DAVID JACK - INVENTOR OF MEDICINES
Sir David Jack is one of the world's most successful inventors of new medicines. He was born in the Fife mining village of Markinch, the sixth child of a coal miner, and began his pharmacy career as an apprentice in Boots in Cupar. After graduating from what was then the Royal Technical College and Glasgow University, he took a research job at Glaxo, where he become Director of Research and Development. Under his stewardship, Glaxo Holdings developed into one of the world's most successful pharmaceutical companies. Jack is credited with the discovery of no less than seven massively important drugs. His most notable finds were Salbutamol, in 1969, and the becotide inhaler, which have saved the lives of millions of asthma sufferers worldwide. He also discovered Zantac, used to treat peptic ulcers.
19. DR. IAN UNDERWOOD - BUILT ULTRA-MINIATURE DISPLAY SCREENS
Ian Underwood has built the smallest television in the world. The screen measures just 5mm diagonally across, much smaller than a postage stamp, and could one day be attached to your glasses, allowing you to surf the net while you walk.It was produced by MicroEmissive Displays (MED) Ltd, a spin-off company from Edinburgh University, which Underwood set up with Dr Jeff Wright. MED designs and produces ultra-miniature television-quality screens based on light-emitting polymers for use in consumer electronic products such as digital still cameras, digital video cameras and personal viewers for mobile devices. As MED's screens typically use at least 70% less power than commonly used LCD microdisplay modules, it is anticipated that this development will lead to smaller, lighter cameras with longer battery life. There is also potential for this advanced technology to enable hands-free and wearable headset displays that will allow users to the internet on the move, probably in conjunction with a mobile phone or other wireless devices.
20. PROFESSOR WILSON SIBBETT - PIONEER OF ULTRAFAST LASERS
Wilson Sibbett, 58, is best known as Scottish science's dashing public champion, having just stepped down as Scotland's first chief adviser on science. But he graduated to that role after a distinguished career in opto-electronics at St Andrews University, where he is the Wardlaw Professor of Physics. Sibbett is a world authority in ultrafast lasers – pulses of light that last a few femtoseconds, an unimaginably short time. There are more than 10 times as many femtoseconds in a second than hours that have passed since the big bang. His work has wide-ranging applications. Ultrashort pulses are especially important in medicine. The power is confined to such a short time that when a laser is used to vaporise tissue, the damage to the surrounding tissue is minimised. This is ideal, for example, in reshaping softer corneal tissue for corrective surgery in the eye. Femtosecond lasers can also provide a practical UV source for the photobiological study of the p53 cancer suppression gene. "I imagine a doctor feeling in his pocket for the instrument he needs – something not much bigger than a pen, but one that incorporates a practical femtosecond laser," he says. "The practical implications of this work are only just being realised."
Written by James Morgan