David Robert Grimes is a physicist and cancer researcher at the University of Oxford. In 2014, he was the joint winner of the John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science. Furthermore, he is also a frequent contributor to the BBC, Irish Times and the Guardian, where he mainly writes science opinion pieces. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from the viability of conspiracy theories to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is the collected works of Richard Feynman. It has been an absolute pleasure to interview David and we hope you enjoy reading it.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: Suppressing my urge to give a glib “as little as possible”, what I tell them depends entirely on their level of interest! I usually would mention I’m a physicist and cancer researcher and might mention that I’m also a science writer.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was born in Dublin, Ireland but spent a large chunk of childhood between there and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. These are fairly divergent places so I suppose I’d have to answer both!
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: My best subjects throughout school were usually English, Music and Mathematics. I always adored the English language, but never found it challenging in any meaningful way at secondary level – in retrospect, my heavy involvement in theatre and debate probably made the whole process implicitly easier. Similarly, music has long been a passion of mine, so I found it enjoyable rather than challenging. By contrast, mathematics was not always quite so relaxing and often required focus – one couldn’t simply rely on a natural ability to sail through. In particular, applied mathematics forced me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to just quite how physical analysis can be applied to an untold wealth of problems in the world around us.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: I recall reading “occasionally flippant” more than once – usually in mandatory religion or Irish classes. I got bored easily and didn’t suffer fools gladly, which of course could be a problem when the fool in question was the one grading you. I’d like to think I’ve mellowed with age!
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a clean epiphany! I considered taking music, journalism or science at university level before decided that I’d learn the most from a formal education in physics.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: My love of physics and science, in general, arose when I was quite young – there was an educational toy shop in Riyadh my parents would often bring me to, and I remember being absolutely fascinated with magnets. My father is an engineer and my mother a nurse, and even as a small child, they would answer my strange questions about science and health with informed answers which further whetted my curiosity. The fact that reality was so much more exciting than any empty just-so story anyone could conjure up excited me from an early age.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I went to Dublin City University, and yes – it was my first choice once I made a decision on what subject I was taking.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied Applied Physics – and absolutely, I most certainly would!
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: I was extremely lucky to have a number of brilliant academics who took the time to lecture and address the questions we had. Prof. Enda McGlynn is one such individual who really took the time to engage with students, and that truly makes a huge difference. Nor did Enda’s help end with graduation – throughout my PhD, I consulted him regularly, and even beyond that.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I was advised that there were grants available to undertake doctoral research if I was so inclined. I was still curious to see what else I could learn, so I decided to apply and was lucky enough to get funded by IRCSET (Irish Research Council for Science Engineering the Technology) and the rest is history.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I undertook my PhD between Dublin City University and St James’s Hospital in Dublin.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: My PhD title was “Development of a radiation computation dose model for use in ultraviolet phototherapy”. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is used as a treatment for a number of skin conditions, but while effective it can be highly damaging if given to excess. Calculating UVR dose is non-trivial, as the dose is absorbed at skin depth and as a consequence orientation of the skin or detector really matters. UVR cabins are also inherently complicated, with mirrors and multiple sources. I was able to derive models from first principle which accurately described the radiation incident on a patient or site and make recommendations for cabin design and efficacy.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: This is perhaps the most important answer I can give here – I would try not to take everything to heart so much. Academia is, unlike a structured degree program, not a linear path, and you will endure setbacks, rejections and changes. When I was doing my PhD, I took these to heart and they exacerbated an underlying anxiety condition which really took a toll on my well-being. I see clearly in retrospect I was putting far too much pressure on myself over situations I had only limited control over. There is a lot of pressure on PhD students, and it’s easy to inadvertently spiral into a dark place. I would urge graduate students to be wiser than I, to realise that rejections and setbacks are not reflective of them but rather a part of the process, and to not be afraid to step back when they need to. Sometimes, a break and some reflection and relaxation are really vital and there’s no shame in asking for help if it’s needed.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I have a few different research threads, but my most central plank focuses on modelling the interactions of oxygen and radiation, and the distribution of oxygen in the tumour microenvironment to improve cancer therapy outcomes.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: You’d have to ask someone else what they think! In terms of citation count, my works on modelling oxygen diffusion in avascular and vascular tumours seems to be rather useful to other scientists.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: In the field of cancer, I think we will continue to improve our treatment modalities and explore new horizons like immunotherapy to gain a degree of control over this family of disease.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: Following on from my previous comment, I don’t think we’ll ever cure cancer but I would hope in the future we’ve developed methods to make it a chronic and treatable condition, where those afflicted can have their condition managed by improved surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy to live long and relatively healthy lives!
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I would hope I’m far too young to answer that!
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Indeed – aside from my research career, I am very active in science outreach. I write for publications such as the Guardian and Irish Times on science issues and contribute to outlets such as BBC and RTE and many others. In 2014, I was awarded the Maddox Prize for standing up for science, which was a humbling honour. I also give frequent talks on Bad science reporting in the media and how we can circumvent this for groups like the Skeptics in the Pub. On top of this, I have academic side projects and have authored papers on the physics of guitar strings and modelling the viability of conspiracy theories. So I try to feign productivity at least.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: You don’t always need to be right – and you don’t always need to go so hard on yourself. Also, if you brush your long hair to the back, it risks looking like a mullet. Don’t do that.
Ask lots of questions, read wide and far and don’t be afraid to prod away at received wisdom.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Ask lots of questions, read wide and far and don’t be afraid to prod away at received wisdom.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Too many to list in any sort of a compact fashion– both fiction and non-fiction. Apologies if that’s something of a cop out answer but I simply couldn’t pick one. Again, I’d urge people to read widely and think deeply.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: It’s something of a clichéd answer from a physicist, but I’d recommend the collected works of Richard Feynman as a starting point for all scientists. In particular, Feynman’s adage that “..the first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool” is supremely important advice not just for any scientist but for all of us.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: Am I driving?! If not, I’ll go for a Jameson on the rocks, please.
If you’d like to find out more about Dr David Robert Grimes you can check out his academic profile, Twitter page, personal website and Wikipedia page.