Giles Yeo is Principal Research Associate at the Metabolic Research Laboratories and Director of Genomics/Transcriptomics at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, University of Cambridge. In addition to that, he is President of the British Society for Neuroendocrinology. Giles is interested in studying how the brain controls food intake and determining how this differs between lean and obese people. Further to that, he has presented a range of fantastic BBC documentaries on the subject of obesity. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from his geographically varied upbringing, to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It has been a pleasure to interview Giles and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I am a geneticist and I study obesity. Wait! Don’t run away! Yes I know you think it’s a simple a problem….people eat too much and move too little. But that is ‘how’ we become fat. Why, however, do some people eat more than other? That is where the genetics and biological variance lies and is what I study.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: My early life was slightly nomadic because I followed my Dad, who was an academic clinician, about. So I was born in King’s College in London in 1973. The day I was born, the power went out in the King’s maternal unit, so all of us babies were carted over to a small hospital (since shut) next door, St Giles’ Hospital (hence my name). I spent the first year of my life in London, then another 4 years after that in Newcastle. I moved back to Singapore, which is where my folks were from, from 5 yrs old – 9 yrs old. I was then in Boston, Massachusetts, USA from 9-10 yrs old, back in Singapore from 10-14 yrs old, before we emigrated to San Francisco, California. I was in San Francisco for High School and University before moving to Cambridge UK to do my PhD. I’ve been there now for the past 22 years.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I excelled in English and Biology. I really struggled with (and still do) with maths.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: ‘Giles needs to focus and apply himself more; he could be doing so much better.’ Pretty much some variance on this statement from kindergarten till I was 12 years old.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: 15 years old, High School in San Francisco. I just took my first big exam in biology and aced it without studying. My teacher at the time, Mr Tom Murphy, said you could be really good at this. Do you want to do extra credit after school on biology? And hesitated, but ended up saying yes. Never regretted it since.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I went to the University of California at Berkeley. It wasn’t my first choice, no. I, like many others, had dreams of going to an Ivy League school like Harvard or Yale. But life led me to Berkeley and I loved every minute of my time there. Unsurprisingly, it was an immensely formative time for my outlook in life, both cultural and intellectual.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied ‘Molecular and Cell Biology with an emphasis in Genetics’. It is still what I do now, so yes, I would select the same subject again!
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Prof Nicholas Cozzarelli who taught me cell biology. He was a specialist in super-coiling of DNA. Sadly he passed away in 2006.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I actually wanted to become a medical doctor. But I spent a summer in a lab in Cambridge UK in the third year of my undergraduate studies, and soon realised that what I wanted to do was NOT medicine, but actually to pursue an academic scientific career.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I was at the University of Cambridge for my PhD studies.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: ‘Study of Complement Genes in the Japanese Pufferfish Fugu Rubripes’
I know, a seriously niche topic! In essence, this was a ‘pre-human genome project’ PhD project….and it had to do with mapping human genes. The problem with human genes is that the coding region, the bit that codes for protein, only makes up around 1-2% of the DNA. While humans and fish diverged over 400 million years ago, we still share most of the genes in common, including their genetic structure. The pufferfish is unusual amongst vertebrates that they have a very small genome, with their coding regions making up 10% of their genome. It meant that it was 10X easier to map genes in the fish than it would be in most other species. The goal in my PhD was to characterise the genes encoding the components of the complement pathway in fish, and then map it back onto the human genome. The thing is, once the human genome project was completed, this project became redundant!
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Difficult to say. The bottom line is while the topic I studied was niche, I became well trained in molecular genetics techniques, which are still the techniques I use in my research today. So I think I would make the same decisions again today!
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I study the how the brain controls food intake, and how this might differ between lean and obese people.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: When I was in my first post-doctoral position with Prof Sir Steve O’Rahilly nearly 20 years ago, we reported that mutations in the Melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R), a hormone receptor that functions in the brain, causes obesity at an early age. We now know (from researchers all over) that mutations in MC4R are the commonest ‘monogenic’ cause of obesity to date, with up to 1% of people with a BMI greater than 30 carrying mutations in the MC4R.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: I think personalised treatment for obesity, or for that matter many different diseases, based on your genetic profile, could be 10-15 years away. Critically we are not there yet…..but a few more quite realistic technological leaps, and we could get there.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: Given the progress with gene-editing technology, and leaving aside the ethical quagmire, for now, I think we will have solved inherited genetic diseases, and moved to correcting the somatic mutations that build up over a lifetime.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I would like to be an excepted fact that obese people are not lazy, gluttonous and morally bereft, rather they are fighting their biology.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I am *hoping* to get a book on fad diets written….but in the meantime, I will continue my TV broadcast projects.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: The vast majority of disappointment I’ve had in life has led to something unexpectedly positive. Very cliché I know, but I would tell myself to never look back and to never give up.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Always try to be as useful as possible, and try not to p*ss people off; if you do this, then when push comes to shove, someone will be in your corner.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: The first are the comic strips Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, which are no longer drawn. But they are filled with fantastic advice and philosophy in life. The second is The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Nerdy, but I have read them many times over, and celebrate human ingenuity and the triumph of science.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Much of science comes from serendipity, and freethinking facilitates serendipity.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Because much of science comes from serendipity, and freethinking facilitates serendipity….or at the very least, freethinking enables you to fully take advantage when serendipity drops something in your lap.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: An American craft ale; An old vine Zinfandel; or a Gin Martini, dry as dust, with a twist of lemon.
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Giles Yeo you can check out his Twitter page, Instagram page and academic profile.
Books Recommended by Dr Giles Yeo