Epigenetics - Why DNA Is Not Your Destiny

How a complex web of chemical changes can have profound effects on gene expression and life itself

Dr Nessa Carey, Imperial College, London

  • Mon 19th Feb 2018
  • 19:30
  • Sackler Lecture Theatre, Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0HA
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Our DNA genome is necessary but not sufficient for complex life. It’s overlaid and augmented by a complex web of chemical changes, that have profound effects on gene expression and life itself. This is the field of epigenetics, which is transforming our understanding of situations ranging from human cancers to crocodile gender; from the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma to the development of barley crops; from tortoiseshell cats to why humans don’t develop teeth in their eyeballs. Most controversially, even the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarckism) may be a genuine epigenetic phenomenon.

Nessa Carey has a virology PhD from the University of Edinburgh and is a former Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at Imperial College, London. She worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry for thirteen years and is now International Director for the UK's leading organisation for technology transfer professionals. She lives in Norfolk and is a Visiting Professor at Imperial College.

And what else?

"After leaving school I went to the University of Edinburgh to become a vet. This didn't last because I was allergic to fur, unable to think in 3D (not good for anatomy), quite bored and really rubbish at the course. So I dropped out and at Catford Job Centre, in amongst the ads for short order chefs (I couldn't cook) and van drivers (I couldn't drive), was one for a forensic scientist. And oddly enough I had always wanted to work at this end of crime - I must have been the only kid in the UK who had read a biography of Bernard Spilsbury by the age of 11.

"So for five years I worked at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Lab in London and studied part-time. I then realised that I loved academic science and went off to do a PhD. At the University of Edinburgh. In the veterinary faculty.

"After that, it was the academic route of post-doc, Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. But I had a tendency to wander off on routes that intrigued me - degree in Immunology, PhD in Virology, post-doc in Human Genetics, academic position in Molecular Biology. Such wandering isn't necessarily the best idea in academia but the breadth of experience is really valued in industry. I spent 13 years in the biotech and pharmaceutical sector, but in 2014 decided to change career paths again.

"And outside of work? I love birdwatching (no, I don't have a life-list), cycling, scavenging stuff from skips, and growing vegetables. I am now kind of living my fantasy about having a smallholding. It is more of a tiny-holding really and as predicted, I will starve to death if I really have to be self-sufficient.

"And I can now cook. And drive."

The lecture will be preceded by a short presentation from a CSAR PhD Student Award winner

Edward Tan - ‘Soft’ electronics for bio-implants