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Richard Wilson


I joined MOAC to discover more about our biology and the techniques and technology used to investigate cellular systems at the molecular level. My ultimate research goal is to understand the ageing process with special reference to neurodegeneration (dementia is a terrible, as yet incurable, disease). Since the body is a molecular machine, the ravages of ageing can in principle be fixed (slightly gory video clip) or, even better, prevented. The portrait is my attempt to illustrate (with thanks to the BBC ) the effects of tackling a small part of this domain of complex, challenging problems (though i don't seem to have gained any planet-shaping skills ;)

The first half of the MOAC MSc is intensive coursework. The second half of the year comprises 3 miniprojects that give a valuable taster of research in different subject areas and environments. My miniprojects were:

  1. Chemistry: plastic fantastic balls - one species of amphiphilic plastic molecules form artificial vesicles but what happens when you add a different species? (poster)
  2. Computation: prion protein folding - the way proteins fold is crucial to their function; small changes to the peptide sequence can make large differences to folding... (summary)
  3. Biology: alpha-synuclein neurotoxicity surprise - protein misfolding is implicated in neurodegenerative diseases; what happens to toxicity as protein is induced to fold in different ways? (presentation)

Thanks to MOAC staff and colleagues for helping me become MSc squared.

My PhD research has been an exploration of the mechanism of motion of the motor protein kinesin, a vital component of axonal transport in the neuron (brain cell). My aim was to make some small contribution to understanding the process of axonal transport and how it can fail, an event linked to the degeneration of neurons which underlies dementia (see my paper) and the cognitive deficits of age. The main way neurons communicates is via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters emitted at the synapses (gaps between neurons) which are located at the terminal of a long projection called the axon. Neurotransmitter proteins are manufactured at the cell body and must be actively transported along the axon to the synapse to enable the neuron to function. Kinesin performs this vital task by carrying vesicles containing neurotransmitter along microtubule tracks. The mechanism of this motion is a hot research topic.

I took a computational approach using rule-based 2D spatial modelling, treating the motor as a finite state machine. My program (written in C) simulates the coupling between the ATP hydrolysis cycle in each of the twin motor domains (heads) and the walking behaviour of kinesin along the track. Results indicate that the stepping process of a free head around its partner (which is bound to the track) is a diffusive process that is restrained by short, flexible, spring-like linkers connecting the heads. The role of the energy liberated by hydrolysis in the stepping process is to forward-bias this diffusion and not to power the head forwards as is the case of the muscle motor myosin.

After much grit, coffee and determination the beast was submitted and i'm pleased to report that i'm now a licenced researcher! To PhD students reading this: be advised that writing up is generally a more time-consuming task than one expects...

You are welcome to have a read of my dissertation in the MOAC lounge.

My academia entry.

Academic Background: computers and cybernetics honours degree at Kent University (great place on a hill overlooking Canterbury); the final year project lead to artificial neural network Masters research at Brunel University. Then i left academia to write commercial software... though, in 1984, i completed a half-year 3rd level part time course "Philosophical Problems" run by the Open University. The course was immensely stimulating (with an excellent summer school up at York) and the stimulus for my other ongoing struggle: to understand the nature of consciousness, referred to by David Chalmers as the hard problem.

Previous Life: several years in the software industry starting off with programming CAD software and progressing to managing projects, latterly at Oxfam. For some people, IT is a fulfilling and lucrative career. Unfortunately, i'm not one of these happy bunnies. Redundancy gave me time to think about what i really wanted to do... it was an arduous transition back to research with no support outside family and friends so do think twice if you're considering becoming a mature student! If you're a student looking at the potentially wonderful world of work, then this quote from Katherine Whitehorn is worth heeding: "Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for it."

Sundry Interests: nature and countryside conservation, alternative transport and energy policies, philosophical investigations, neurology, psychology (including ASCs and dreaming), intelligent prosthetics, international relations, human rights, animal welfare, wildlife gardening, libertarianism, Art Nouveau, Pre-Raphaelite and celtic art, world music... some favourite tracks: Santana Smooth, David Byrne Lazy, Shakira Suerte, Scissor Sisters Filthy Gorgeous, Amália Rodrigues Carmencita, Nerina Pallot All Good People, Johnny Cash Hurt... and try the video of Hayseed Dixie's Ace of Spades :)