The Life Scientific

BBC Radio 4

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future

  • 28 minutes 39 seconds
    Raymond Schinazi on revolutionising treatments for killer viruses

    In recent decades, we've taken huge steps forward in treating formerly fatal viruses: with pharmacological breakthroughs revolutionising treatment for conditions such as HIV, hepatitis and herpes.

    Raymond Schinazi has played a big role in that revolution.

    Ray was born in Egypt, where his mother’s brush with a potentially deadly illness during his childhood inspired a fascination with medicine. His childhood was scattered: after his family were forced to leave their homeland and travelled to Italy as refugees, Ray ended up on a scholarship to a British boarding school - and subsequently went on to study and flourish in the world of chemistry and biology.

    Today, Ray is the Director of the Laboratory of Biochemical Pharmacology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also set up the renowned Center for AIDS Research. His work in the early days of HIV studies led to drugs that many with the virus still take today; while his contribution to developing a cure for Hepatitis C has saved millions of lives around the world.

    Speaking to Jim Al-Khalili, Ray reflects on his route to success - and explains why he's confident that more big breakthroughs are on the horizon.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

    16 July 2024, 8:00 am
  • 28 minutes 36 seconds
    Janet Treasure on eating disorders and the quest for answers

    From anorexia nervosa to binge-eating, eating disorders are potentially fatal conditions that are traditionally very difficult to diagnose and treat - not least because those affected often don’t recognise that there’s anything wrong. But also because of the diverse factors that can influence and encourage them.

    Janet Treasure is a Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College, London - where she's focused on understanding the drivers behind these disorders, to help develop more effective treatments. Her study of twins in the 1980s offered one of the earliest arguments of a genetic link to anorexia, rather than the purely psychological motivations accepted at the time; while her most recent work explores holistic ways to better treat these conditions.

    Speaking to Jim Al-Khalili, Janet explains the work that's revealed anorexia's roots in both body and mind - as well as how attitudes towards eating disorders are slowly changing.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

    9 July 2024, 8:00 am
  • 28 minutes 35 seconds
    Anne Child on Marfan syndrome and love at first sight

    Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that makes renders the body’s connective tissues incredibly fragile; this can weaken the heart, leading to potentially fatal aneurysms. What’s more, anyone with the condition has a 50/50 chance of passing it on to their children.

    Dr Anne Child is a clinical geneticist who’s dedicated her professional life to finding answers and solutions for people affected by Marfan’s.

    Born in Canada, she met her British future-husband while working in Montreal in a case she describes as "love at first sight" - and in the 1970s she relocated her life to the UK.

    There, an encounter with a Marfan patient she was unable to help set Anne on a career path for life. She subsequently established the team that discovered the gene responsible for Marfan's, and founded the Marfan Trust to drive further research. Since then, life expectancy for those with the condition has jumped from 32 years old, to over 70.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Anne shares how she and her team achieved this remarkable turnaround.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

    2 July 2024, 8:00 am
  • 28 minutes 35 seconds
    Conny Aerts on star vibrations and following your dreams

    Many of us have heard of seismology, the study of earthquakes; but what about asteroseismology, focusing on vibrations in stars?

    Conny Aerts is a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Leuven in Belgium - and a champion of this information-rich field of celestial research. Her work has broken new ground in helping to improve our understanding of stars and their structures.

    It hasn’t been an easy path: Conny describes herself as always being “something of an outlier” and she had to fight to follow her dream of working in astronomy. But that determination has paid off - today, Conny is involved in numerous interstellar studies collecting data from thousands of stars, and taking asteroseismology to a whole new level.

    In an epsiode recorded at the 2024 Cheltenham Science Festival, Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to the pioneering Belgian astrophysicist about her lifelong passion for stars, supporting the next generation of scientists, and her determination to tread her own path.

    Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Lucy Taylor

    25 June 2024, 8:00 am
  • 32 minutes 42 seconds
    Mike Edmunds on decoding galaxies and ancient astronomical artefacts

    What is the universe made of? Where does space dust come from? And how exactly might one go about putting on a one-man-show about Sir Isaac Newton?

    These are all questions that Mike Edmunds, Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University and President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), has tackled during his distinguished career. And although physics is his first love, Mike is fascinated by an array of scientific disciplines - with achievements ranging from interpreting the spread of chemical elements in the Universe, to decoding the world’s oldest-known astronomical artefact.

    Recording in front of an audience at the RAS in London, Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Mike about his life, work and inspirations. And who knows, Sir Isaac might even make an appearance…

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

    23 April 2024, 8:30 am
  • 28 minutes 9 seconds
    Hannah Critchlow on the connected brain

    With 86 billion nerve cells joined together in a network of 100 trillion connections, the human brain is the most complex system in the known universe.

    Dr. Hannah Critchlow is an internationally acclaimed neuroscientist who has spent her career demystifying and explaining the brain to audiences around the world. Through her writing, broadcasting and lectures to audiences – whether in schools, festivals or online – she has become one of the public faces of neuroscience.

    She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that her desire to understand the brain began when she spent a year after school as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital. The experience of working with young patients - many the same age as her - made her ask what it is within each individual brain which determines people’s very different life trajectories.

    In her books she’s explored the idea that much of our character and behaviour is hard-wired into us before we’re even born. And most recently she’s considered collective intelligence, asking how we can bring all our individual brains together and harness their power in one ‘super brain’.

    And we get to hear Jim’s own mind at work as Hannah attaches electrodes to his head and turns his brain waves into sound.

    Producer: Jeremy Grange

    16 April 2024, 8:30 am
  • 28 minutes 27 seconds
    Fiona Rayment on the applications of nuclear for net zero and beyond

    The reputation of the nuclear industry has had highs and lows during the career of Dr Fiona Rayment, the President of the Nuclear Institute. But nowadays the role of nuclear science and engineering has become more widely accepted in the quest for carbon net zero.

    Growing up in Hamilton, Scotland during a time of energy insecurity, Fiona was determined to understand more about why her school lacked the energy to heat up all of the classrooms or why there were power cuts causing her to have to do her homework by candlelight - and in nuclear she knew there was a possible solution.

    But it’s not just in clean energy that Fiona has spent her career, she’s also been involved in investigating how nuclear science can be used in treating cancer and space travel, as well as promoting gender diversity in the nuclear industry.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Fiona discusses how she’s always tried to keep close to the science during her career in order to keep her ‘spark’!

    Produced by Jonathan Blackwell

    9 April 2024, 8:30 am
  • 28 minutes 11 seconds
    Nick Longrich on discovering new dinosaurs from overlooked bones

    We are fascinated by dinosaurs. From blockbuster hits to bestselling video games, skeleton exhibitions to cuddly plushies, the creatures that once roamed the planet have fully captured our imagination, giving us a portal to a completely alternative Earth. And it’s likely new species are still out there, waiting to be found...

    Dr Nick Longrich is a palaeontologist and senior lecturer at the University of Bath, and he studies the dinosaur bones that many have overlooked. By rummaging through the back rooms of museums, he finds traces of never-before-described dinosaurs and goes on the hunt for other specimens to confirm or deny his hunch. Through these adventures, he’s discovered over a dozen new species, painting a more detailed picture of our prehistoric world.

    Nick is also fascinated by rare ‘one in a million year’ events – like asteroid collisions or mega volcanic eruptions – and investigates how the event that wiped out the dinosaurs created the world we live in today. From an Island off the coast of Alaska, Jim Al-Khalili discovers how Nicks early immersion in nature has trained his brain to spot the subtle differences in the world around us that many would overlook.

    Produced by Julia Ravey.

    2 April 2024, 12:52 pm
  • 28 minutes 11 seconds
    Sheila Willis on using science to help solve crime

    Dr Sheila Willis is a forensic scientist who was Director General of Forensic Science Ireland for many years.

    She has spent her life using science to help solve cases, working on crime scenes and then analysing material in the lab, and presenting scientific evidence in court.

    It’s a complicated business. Forensic science relies on powerful technology, such as DNA analysis, but it cannot be that alone - it’s also about human judgement, logical reasoning and asking the right questions.

    It is these fundamentals of forensic science that Sheila has fought for through her long career and what she fears may be becoming lost from the field now.

    We find out what happens when the two very different worlds of science and the law clash in the courtroom. How to walk the line of presenting scientific evidence where there is pressure to be definitive where often science cannot be - and what this part of the job has in common with food packaging.

    And what makes a good forensic scientist?

    We’ll turn the studio at London’s Broadcasting House into a live crime scene to see if host Professor Jim Al-Khalili would be any good as a forensic investigator…

    Produced by Gerry Holt

    27 March 2024, 1:52 am
  • 28 minutes 10 seconds
    Sir Charles Godfray on parasitic wasps and the race to feed nine billion people

    Professor Charles Godfray, Director of the the Oxford Martin School tells Jim Al-Kahlili about the intricate world of population dynamics, and how a healthy obsession with parasitic wasps might help us solve some of humanity's biggest problems, from the fight against Malaria to sustainably feeding a global community of 9 billion people.

    19 March 2024, 4:07 pm
  • 36 minutes 49 seconds
    Jonathan Van-Tam on Covid communication and the power of football analogies

    Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, or ‘JVT’ as he's arguably better known, first came to widespread public attention in his role as Deputy Chief Medical Officer during the Covid-19 pandemic.

    But even before that, Jonathan had built an impressive career based on a long-held fascination with respiratory illness and infectious diseases. He’s worked across the public and private sectors, contributing significantly to improving our understanding of influenza and treatments to address such viruses.

    It’s hard to believe that back in his teens, JVT – the man who advised the nation on pandemic precautions and helped make the UK’s vaccine roll-out possible – nearly didn’t get the grades he needed to go to medical school. But early challenges aside, Jonathan went on to discover a love for both medical research and public speaking: making complex public health messages easier to digest – not least by using analogies relating to his beloved football.

    Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili in the first episode of a new series of The Life Scientific, Jonathan discusses his life and career: from academic emphasis in childhood and imposter syndrome at medical school, to pandemic pressures around Covid-19 and big birthday celebrations.

    Produced by Lucy Taylor.

    12 March 2024, 9:30 am
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