PHYSICS AND LIFE SCIENCES

 

 

 

Cait MacPhee

 

Room 2613, James Clerk Maxwell Building

School of Physics, University of Edinburgh

The Kings Buildings, Mayfield Road

Edinburgh EH9 3JZ

Tel: +44-(0)131-650 5291

Email: cait.macphee[at]ed.ac.uk

 

I am Professor of Biological Physics in the Condensed Matter group of the School of Physics at The University of Edinburgh, and part of the Life Physics at Edinburgh Group.

 

The School of Physics is a member of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA).

 

I was recently elected to the Young Academy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and to the Fellowship of the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology.

 

You can follow me on twitter as @sciorama

 

Recent publications:

 

Effect of Protonation State on the Stability of Amyloid Oligomers Assembled from TTR(105–115)” has been published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters

 

Gender differences in conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics: a UK cross-institution comparison” has been published in the European Journal of Physics

 

Atomic structure and hierarchical assembly of a cross-β amyloid fibril” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA

 

“Mechanistic and environmental control of the prevalence and lifetime of amyloid oligomers” has been accepted for publication in Nature Communications

 

“Quantifying disorder through conditional entropy: an application to fluid mixing” has been accepted for publication in PLoS One

 

 

Lab members

 

My research can be broadly described by the topic of:

 

Peptide and protein self-assembly

 

My research interests focus on the behaviour of proteins: the molecules that are responsible for the vast majority of functions in living organisms. The controlled self-assembly of proteins into well-defined structures and functional assemblies is essential to our well-being, however occasionally protein self-assembly takes place inappropriately. When this happens in the body it typically causes disease, and familial diseases as well as diseases of ageing (such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, cataract and type II diabetes) are all recognised to be the result of improper protein self-assembly.  Protein self-assembly can also cause havoc in industrial processes including the production of biopharmaceuticals (e.g. insulin). When this occurs, the pharmaceutical is often lost as an irretrievably tangled mass of gelled protein. All is not lost, however: the self-assembly of proteins also underpins the texture of foodstuffs including egg, meat and milk products. It is understanding this process of self-assembly – to prevent or reverse disease, or to drive the development of new materials and foodstuffs – that forms the focus of my research efforts.

 

A more recent and growing research interest of mine is in proteins that have no well-defined structure, the so-called “intrinsically disordered proteins”, which share many of the physical characteristics of polymers and colloids, i.e. traditional soft matter. This class of proteins is an enigma: according to the established view of biomolecular science they should not exist, and where they do they should be rapidly destroyed by gatekeeper mechanisms. Instead, they appear to be surprisingly common and responsible for a range of essential cellular functions. Existing biophysical tools are geared towards crystalline and folded proteins; the emerging importance of intrinsically unfolded proteins offers an exciting opportunity for soft matter physicists to have substantial and lasting impact on biomolecular science.

 

We use solid-state NMR techniques, spectroscopic analysis, mass spectrometry, optical tweezers, AFM and electron microscopy to investigate self-assembly mechanisms. I collaborate with a number of groups in Edinburgh and further afield:

 

Dr Perdita Barran (Edinburgh)

The National Physical Laboratory (along with Dr Simon Titmuss, Dr Marieke Schor and Dr Jana Schwarz-Linek)

Dr Ulrich Zachariae (Dundee)

Prof Tony Watts and Dr Peter Judge (Oxford)

Dr Sylvia McLain (Oxford)

Dr Nicola Stanley-Wall (Dundee)

Prof. Bob Griffin (MIT, Boston)

 

Click here to see a list of my publications

Click here to see a list of current projects & vacancies

 

 

Evolution

I am also interested in Astrobiology and the Origins of Life, including the study of extreme organisms, the behaviour of biological molecules under extreme conditions, and the evolution of complex structures. In this context I am currently a member of the committee setting up the UK Centre for Astrobiology. If you undertake astrobiology research in the UK, why not join us as a node?

 

Women in Science

I am curious about the challenges facing women in physics, and in the science, engineering and technology (SET) disciplines more generally.  In Scotland, women accounted for 39% of students in SET disciplines in 2008-2009. Across the country 209,200 people hold a STEM degree, but only 29% of female SET graduates are working in the sector in which they are qualified, compared to 52% of male graduates. The situation is similar in the US. And according to data collected by the IoP, 33.3% of assistant professors in all subjects in the UK are women, but this figure drops to 8.5% for full professors (and only 3% in physics). That’s an awful lot of highly trained people we’re failing to support.

 

For examples of women successfully balancing a career in science with a family, see the excellent “Mothers in Science” booklet at York.

 

The School of Physics and Astronomy at Edinburgh has Juno Practitioner status. Project Juno is an Institute of Physics initiative that aims to address the under-representation of women in university physics and to encourage better practice for both women and men.

 

 

Biology versus Physics

As someone who has crossed disciplines (a bit unusually, I have moved from Biology to Physics rather than the reverse) I have an interest in the interaction and the tensions between the two fields.

 

Teaching

I currently teach Research Methods at Junior Honours level (3rd year students), Physics 1A: Foundations (1st year) and some lecturers on Structural Biology (4th/5th year students). I have taught Macromolecular Physics and Biological Physics at Senior Honours/ Intermediate Masters level.

 

Brief CV:

1995 BSc (Hons), Department of Biochemistry, University of Melbourne

1999 PhD, Faculty of Medicine, University of Melbourne

1999-2000 PDRA, Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences, University of Oxford (Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College)

1999-2001 Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, University of Oxford

2001-2005 Royal Society University Research Fellow and Lecturer, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge (Research Fellow of Girton College, Fellow of King’s College)

2006-2011 Royal Society University Research Fellow, School of Physics, University of Edinburgh

 

Further links:

I am a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (FInstP)

I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC)

I am a Fellow of the Society of Biology (FSB)

I am a member of the committee of the Liquids and Complex Fluids Group of the IoP

I am a member of the Biochemical Society

I am a member of the British Biophysical Society

I am a member of the Astrobiology Society of Britain

In 2006 I was awarded “Science Woman of the Future

For information on Ethical Conduct and Good Practice in Research, see here