Leah Fitzsimmons

Favourite Thing: Making a discovery! Not every day has a eureka moment, but when you find yourself looking at the result of an experiment that has never been done before, and you realise that you are the first person in the world to figure out that particular thing about that particular gene or protein it feels pretty amazing!



Torc High School, Tamworth 1997-2002. Wilnecote High School, Tamworth 2002-2005. Birmingham University 2005-2008 and 2009-now!


BSc Biochemistry, A-levels: Music, Theatre Studies, Chemistry, Biology, Music Technology

Work History:

I have had lots of jobs – I have been a waitress, a restuarant manager, a bar tender, a bookmaker, a nursery assistant and a cook. I also occasionally teach hula hooping at festivals!

Current Job:

PhD Student in the School of Cancer Sciences


Birmingham University

Me and my work

I’m interested in how viruses can cause cancer, so I compare infected and unifected cancer cells to look for differences.

Lots of things can affect a person’s chances of developing cancer; like genetics, environment, and lifestyle, but less well known is that viruses can also play a part, and that they are thought to be a factor in up to 20% of all cancers. In most cases the viruses involved are ones that lots of people are normally infected with, and that don’t tend to make people sick (they might even protect us from other infections), so we want to find out how this normally happy relationship can go wrong. That way we hope we can design better therapies for patients and even help to prevent viruses from causing cancer in the first place.

The virus I work on is called Epstein-Barr virus (EBV for short), most people become infected with it as a child and then carry it for life – in fact, by adulthood 9/10 people will be infected! EBV usually hides in white blood cells, where it is only found in one in every million cells, and even those cells it is silent (all of it’s genes are switched off) and harmless. However, in some cancers we find the virus has become active and is expressing viral genes in every single cell of the tumour.  I use cells from patients with Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is a rare type of white blood cell cancer, and compare cells that are infected with EBV to cells that have lost the virus and have found that EBV makes cancer cells less easy to kill.

The really interesting and difficult part however, is figuring out how EBV can help to protect cancer cells from dying. I infect cells with mini viruses to test how individual viral genes can affect the survival of cells and try to decipher which human genes the virus might be targeting. So far I have found that viral genes probably work together and try to keep the cells alive by lots of different mechanisms, which explains how it can have the same effect in lots of different people.

My Typical Day

Feeding, extracting, purifying, pippetting, waiting, and analysing!

Usually the first thing I do is answer my emails and make a plan for the day – I have to write myself a detailed to-do list as I have a tendency to be a bit forgetful, which can be a disaster as a scientist! Luckily, I always have my trusty lab book and an enormous supply of post-it notes to keep my experiments on track. Once I have a plan in place, being careful to remember everything I have to fit around my experiments like meetings, seminars, and writing reports, then I head into the lab.

A lot of my time gets taken up with cell culture, which is basically growing and caring for the cancer cells that I use in my work. Because cancer cells grow continuously they need to be ‘fed’ several times a week, which involves diluting cells in a special pink liquid which scientists refer to (a bit ambiguously) as ‘media’. This liquid contains all the nutrients the cells need to grow including sugars, salts and amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Taking good care of the cells and ensuring that they are all treated the same and are growing similarly to how we think they grow in the body makes sure that my experiments are well controlled, so we can be certain that the results are reliable – so it is very important to get this right! Once all of my cells are growing well I can use them to set up experiments – in my work I often expose cancer cells to different drugs or infect them with mini viruses to look how the cells respond  or find out the effect of a particular viral gene. At the end of the experiment I collect the cells for analysis.

Depending on what I want to find out I can analyse cells in a number of ways. If I want to know how efficiently a drug kills cells I measure cell death using fluorescent dyes to allow me to ‘see’ dead and dying cells (with the help of a machine which can detect the tiny glowing dyes!). If I want to know whether a particular gene is present, or how active it is I can isolate the genetic material (DNA) or the number of messages each gene is sending (the RNA) and then measure the levels of these. I also spend a lot of time looking at proteins and enzymes – sometimes called the machinery of the cell – which I do by separating out different proteins and then using a ‘tag’ molecule, which sticks specifically to a single protein, to measure which proteins are there and in what amounts.

When I am not in the lab I spend a lot of time analysing data at my computer and reading up on experiments that other people have done.  One of the best and most important elements of science is sharing your data with other people. It can be through an informal chat over coffee, demonstrating a technique in the lab or by presenting work or ideas at meetings. I have lots of different types of meetings and each has a different use – lab meetings with my group are the place to admit embarrassing things that aren’t working or discuss technical problems, going through my data with my Professor is when I announce my favourite new grand idea (he tells me it will never work), and departmental seminars are a chance to hear from other groups in the University and from around the country. I also get to travel to conferences and other labs to present my work or learn new skills. So far I have worked in Melbourne, Australia for four months and presented work in Cambridge, Holland, Ireland, and Australia, have blogged about the British Science Festival in Scotland and had the chance to record a science podcast at the BBC.

What I'd do with the money

Try to make more people excited about viruses!

Viruses are totally amazing; they have tiny numbers of genes compared to humans (which means they have to be super efficient) and they have lots of incredible features – like being able to become totally silent to hide from the immune system, being able to copy genes from the cells they have infected and being able to copy themselves by ‘piggy-backing’ onto the DNA in a cell. I think that figuring out how viruses work can teach us so much, not just about viruses, but also about ourselves. However, because viruses can be quite difficult to work on and because the diseases they cause can be utterly devastating, people can understandably be less than enthusiastic about them. I think that the more we know the better equipped we can be to tackle virus-associated disease and that’s why I would love to inspire the next generation of virologists.

My lab in Birmingham is part of the University of Birmingham Centre for Human Virology which has researchers working on almost every kind of virus than can make you sick and I hope to invest this money into our virology outreach program. My plan is to buy basic versions of some of the equipment I use in the lab which will allow us to set up a miniature travelling virology lab that we can take on tour to schools, open days, and festivals (and anywhere else they’ll have us). Visitors to our mini lab can then learn how to identify a virus in a patient sample (spit, blood, poo etc – virus hunting is not very glamorous, although it is not as gross as it sounds either), and more importantly how to figure out whether a virus is making someone sick and how to treat it.


My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Silly, too talkative.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Too many to choose from! Top 3 probably Fleetwood Mac, Regina Spektor and Ed Harcourt (all a bit obscure!)

What's your favourite food?

I love cooking new things and try not to eat the same thing twice but I couldn’t live without homemade pizza.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Camping in the Australian outback

What did you want to be after you left school?

A singer in a rock band

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes – more frequently than I am proud of. My leaver’s book contains a message from my physics teacher saying he wished I paid a bit more attention in science as he thought I might be quite good at it!

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Presenting my work to top scientists at a conference in Lorne, Australia just meters from a beautiful beach.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Two chemists; my GCSE chemistry teacher who let me into the secret science is about questions we cannot begin to answer, rather than about learning facts, and Mr Raeside, who made me feel that I was clever enough to go to University.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A waitress and a part-time musician (which is what I was before I started my PhD)

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1) Get a typist – I hate writing but I have to do so much of it – especially now my 50,000 word thesis is due! 2) Get a time turner – a la Hermione Granger. If I could be in two places at once life would run much more smoothly and I would have enough time for work and for my hobbies 3) Live in a castle.

Tell us a joke.

Joke telling is not a skill I have mastered, so…have a picture of a retrovirus instead (in the ‘what I’d do with the money’ section!)

Other stuff

Work photos: