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James Larkin is a postdoctoral researcher in the Sibson Lab.

As well as talking about his current work with MRI and metabolomics, James gives an insight into his teaching role, tells us how a willingness to take advantage of new opportunities has supported his career, and reveals what he does for fun…


Talk to us about your research…

I work with both MRI and metabolomics for the early detection and characterisation of cancer, with an emphasis on brain metastases. At the moment, I’m putting a lot of focus on my metabolomics studies with cancer patients; here I’m able to detect brain metastases using only a urine sample. Metabolomics is a powerful technique which combines something very intuitivea biofluid test for a diseasewith complex mathematical modelling and analytical science. It’s an exciting and rapidly evolving field with advances being made all the time, both in the analytical techniques and in the statistics.

What are the implications of your research?

Put simply, metabolomics is cheap and will make a fantastic screening and diagnosis tool for many diseases, including cancers. It could be widely used in the primary care setting, where a blood or urine test at the GP could be sent away for analysis at specialist centres and a diagnosis returned. This approach has a great commercial potential, and so I’m currently setting up a spinout company with some colleagues to develop and deploy a metabolomics-based cancer test.

How did you get to where you are in your career today? Is there any support from others which has been particularly valuable?

I’m a biochemist by training but it’s been clear to me since I was an undergraduate that I wanted to work in an area that wasn’t “hardcore” biochemistry.

Although I have actively tried to plan my career, in practice (as with most people) there has been a great deal of chance and willingness to take advantage of new opportunities. For example, while I was working as a research assistant at the Sanger Institute, I met my future PhD supervisor at an unrelated social event. I realised we had a lot in common scientifically and we’d be able to work well together so we decided that I take a research assistant position with him while we obtained funding for my PhD.

In Oxford, one of the relationships I value the most is the one with Louis Mahadevan, the Fellow of Biochemistry at Trinity College. Although I know him through my teaching work at Trinity, he takes an active interest in my research career and is always willing to give help and advice based upon his experiences and insight as a PI in the Department of Biochemistry. His detachment from my day-to-day research helps me see things from a different perspective and find solutions I might not otherwise think of.

You mention your teaching work in Biochemistry at Trinity College, tell us a little about this.

I’ve always found teaching enjoyable so when I was writing my PhD thesis I applied for demonstrating work in the Department of Biochemistry. It was a great introduction to the teaching system at Oxford (as well as the long-forgotten differences between a teaching lab and a research lab!). When I was working there, I learned that the Fellow of Biochemistry at Trinity College was going on a sabbatical, so I applied to cover some of his tutorial teaching. I’ve been at Trinity ever since, mostly teaching molecular cell biology and genetics to biochemistry, and medical students. The tutorial system at Oxford is quite different to a lot of other universities and allows a very personal, and often quite intensive, teaching environment. I closely follow the students throughout their degree course and it’s very rewarding to keep in touch with them as they embark on their careers.

What do you do to relax?

For fun I retreat to the workshop in my garden where I like to tinker with electronics and woodwork. At the moment, I’m building a computer-controlled wood milling machine.