I first became interested in the lungs during my Pharmacology degree at the University of Sheffield.
A final year research project looking at cellular responses to asthma medication led to the offer of staying on in Sheffield as a Research Technician with Dr Peter Peachell, studying mast cell-stabilising properties of various asthma medications. This was my first experience of “proper” research science, and one which cemented my desire to study for a PhD.
On asking my supervisor about where I should look for a PhD focusing on asthma, Southampton was highly recommended and so, in 2009, I applied for an Integrated PhD in Respiratory Biology. I had no idea of the specific projects on offer at the time, but it turned out that there was an MRC-funded project looking at the toxicology of airborne particulate matter air pollution in underground railway stations.
The fact that this project was very interdisciplinary, combining airway cell biology with the opportunity to learn state-of-the-art analytical chemistry techniques, supervised by Profs Donna Davies at UHS, and Damon Teagle and Martin Palmer at NOCS, all leaders in their fields, meant that it was an easy choice.
The particulate matter was separated into three sizes, depending on the lung depth to which it penetrates. The smallest fraction, termed “ultrafine”, had hardly been discussed in the literature, but the high metal content found in our chemical analyses suggested that it may pose a risk to health, and this was borne out by work in the latter part of my PhD. The media attention and interview opportunities resulting from this also gave me some great opportunities for public engagement.
Following my PhD in 2013, I spent three years of postdoctoral research in the Brooke Laboratory at UHS, studying cellular responses to cold virus and allergens, and how these affect cell-cell communication in the airways.
However, my overriding interest was always air pollution, and I was fortunate to be given leeway, and some funding from the AAIR Charity, to continue studying the effects of underground railway pollution. I was also keen to progress to other pollution sources; one of the least understood of these is shipping, which contributes significantly to pollution in port and coastal cities, such as Southampton.
In late 2016 I was lucky enough to be awarded a Future Leader Fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to study the biological effects of particulate emissions from ships and a range of dockside sources. This gives me the chance to establish myself as a research leader and to develop collaborations with a range of researchers.
The most rewarding aspect is the opportunity to use the science to develop links with various stakeholders in industry and local government, both of which will prove very mutually beneficial and impactful in the coming years.
In this regard, it is fortuitous that air pollution seems to be in the public eye at the moment; there has already been coverage from Inside Out and The One Show (BBC1) and an upcoming Channel 4 feature.
I also greatly enjoy working in two very different research environments, which gives me different perspectives on how science I done, even if it can sometimes throw up logistical challenges!
I hope this is just the start of my work in this area, which is also being pursued by a growing number of researchers elsewhere in Southampton. Hopefully, in years to come, Southampton will be a renowned centre for air pollution research.