Rachel McMullan

Favourite Thing: watching worms



Redborne Upper School 1991-1996 The University of Birmingham 1996-2003


BSc Hons Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Biology 1999 PhD Biosciences 2003

Work History:

The MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology 2003-2010, Imperial College London 2010-2015

Current Job:

Lecturer and Research Fellow


The Open University

Me and my work

I use worms as a simple system to understand how being stressed can make you ill

I’m interested in how stress makes you ill. We all know that when we’re a bit stressed we’re more likely to catch a cold but how does this happen? That’s the question I’m trying to answer.

Special cells called immune cells protect your body from invading bugs that cause colds and other illnesses. These immune cells recognise the invading bugs and destroy them, stopping you from becoming ill. When you’re stressed messages from your brain stop the immune cells from working as well. We want to know more about these messages and how they stop the immune cells working but your brain is really, really complicated so this is a big challenge.

Luckily the way immune cells destroy invading bugs is very similar in lots of different animals, even simple worms like this one called Caenorhanditis elegansmyimage1 We can grow thousands of worms in the lab so we can do lots of experiments really quickly. By looking at how the worms’ brain and immune systems talk to each other we can learn more about how stress makes you ill.


My Typical Day

Always different, always busy

I normally start work at about 9.30 after taking my daughters to school and nursery. I’m a lecturer and researcher so I split my time between teaching and research but being in the lab and doing experiments is definitely my favourite part of the job. I’ve only just started as a lecturer so I’m still learning about that side of the job but if it’s a research day I’ll go straight down to the lab myimage6 and start any experiments that need doing. Sometimes things can take quite a long time so I try to plan what’s going to take the longest and start that first. I spend a lot of my day looking down a microscope like this one… myimage5 but I could also be preparing plates to grow the worms on or collecting and analysing worm DNA samples.

Most days there will be meetings or seminars to attend. Sometimes one of the students in the labs talks about their work and sometimes we have scientists from other research institutes and universities coming to tell us about their work.

I spend a lot more time at my desk than I used to when I was a student but I’m not always doing the same thing. Sometimes I’m looking at the data I’ve collected and trying to make sense of it. Sometimes I’m preparing teaching and sometimes I’m writing up our findings so that we can publish them.

One of the great things about being a scientist is that the job is really flexible, I decide what I’m going to do each day and there’s so many different things to do I’m always rushing at the end of the day to get everything done so I never have time to get bored.


What I'd do with the money

Buy some handheld digital cameras for schools to explore the microscopic world

Lots of my time is spent studying worms down a microscope. I can spend hours watching the worms moving about and because they’re see through I can see everything inside them including their brain, which you can see here in green and red… myimage3 and their gut! I’m always amazed by what we can learn just by looking at something really close up and it’s one of the things that inspires me.

I’d like to use the money to inspire some future biologists by giving them a chance to see the world up really close. I’d use it to buy handheld digital cameras like this one… myimage2 that can be linked to computers and used to look at almost anything up close. I plan to take these cameras with me when I visit local primary schools so that we can look closely at insects, seeds, flowers, creepy crawlies and I can even show them some of the worms I work with!

Hopefully we’ll be able to take some really cool pictures and movies that the students can share with their friends and family on their school’s website.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

organised, determined, bossy

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Elbow, but more often I’m forced to listen to the Frozen soundtrack by my kids

What's your favourite food?

Chocolate, obviously!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Having kids, they make me laugh everyday

What did you want to be after you left school?

I think I should say scientist but actually I wanted to be a fashion designer until I was about 14!

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Not really

What was your favourite subject at school?

I really liked Biology because I was good at it but I think my favourite was English Literature

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

Started my own lab so I could chose what experiments to do

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Mainly my parents who both have science degrees

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

probably a swimming teacher

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

1. more time so I could get more work done and see my family more. 2. An extra set of hands 3. Chocolate that doesn’t make you fat!

Tell us a joke.

Sorry, it’s a science joke! Two atoms are walking down the street. One says to the other one “I think I’ve lost and electron” The other says “are you sure?” the first one replies “yes I’m positive”

Other stuff

Work photos:

Here’s what my lab looks like… myimage6 and this is my microscope… myimage5 that I use to look at worms. This is what I can see… myimage4