Researcher Spotlight: Meet Dr. Dave Scott

Associate Professor and Reader in Physical Biochemistry at Nottingham University, Dr. Dave Scott is a self-described master of the dark arts of AUC and Phys.Biochem.

He has expertise in Analytical Ultracentrifugation, small angle neutron scattering, isothermal titration calorimetry, protein expression and characterization as well as protein crystallography, cryo-EM and NMR.

This multitalented researcher is Group Leader of the Biophysical Methods Group, based at the Research Complex at Harwell. Their focus is to develop a variety of biophysical methods to characterize the interactions of biological macromolecules.

He is close to publishing his 100th paper and his career has been one involving rapid movement and unexpected changes of direction. Elizabeth Berger talks to Dr. Scott about his career so far from starting out trying to choose a university, juggling parenthood with lab work, the importance of collaborative research and how he has few regrets.

Beginnings

Dave knew from the age of 16 what he wanted as a career.

I can remember the moment of choosing very clearly. I came across a book on University courses by Brian Heap and one of the disciplines described was Biophysics, which sounded just the sort of thing I wanted to do.

But he found that his dream was almost over at the first hurdle.

I applied to Leeds and UEA and easily obtained offers from both. And then, due to sheer laziness on my part, I managed to not make these offers and got rejected by both. It was a significant wake up call. I realised that intelligence will only get you so far but hard work is absolutely necessary to get you where you want to go.

Starting a course in Engineering Physics at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) Dave never lost his interest in Biophysics.

I remember a lecture where they described how the blood of a crab is blue due to the way that its equivalent of hemoglobin binds a copper atom rather than iron. This I found fascinating.

Enthusiasm reignited, he decided to ask the Admissions Department at Leeds how he could join their Biophysics course. They told him that to be admitted, he would need to retake two A levels, Maths and Physics.

I was still an Undergraduate so I enrolled in a local night school and did my A levels in the evenings while completing the first year during the day. I decided to work like I never had before and passed my first year of studies and attained the grades for the A levels.

After this monumental effort he was accepted onto the Biophysics course at Leeds.

Arriving at Leeds was a revelation. The biophysics course was quite small so every lecture became like an extended seminar and tutorial combined. The course opened up a whole new world of science to me and learning protein structure, crystallography, EM, NMR and lots and lots of Physics and Maths from the basic to the advanced was just what I wanted to do.

So after three years Dave decided to carry on his studies at Leeds by doing a PhD, supervised by Peter Stockley and taught at the bench by Nic Stonehouse.

PhD and Post-doc

During my PhD I was introduced with a bang to molecular biology and microbial techniques and I was sent to the Biochemistry department at Bristol to do kinetic experiments with Tony Clark.

As a post-doc, Dave went to work for Jim Hoggett at University of York incorporating tryptophan analogues into proteins in order to give them unique spectral properties that could be exploited to observe the presence of other proteins and nucleic acids.

During my time at York I met structural biologists (Dave Roper and Jerry Tame) who became long-term collaborators. I became firm friends with Christoph Baumann and he remains one of the first I will ‘test drive’ ideas on. I also married and our first child was born bringing the work life balance into my consciousness for the first time.

He ended up spending five years at York with the last year spent as a visitor with Carol Robinson at University of Oxford learning mass spectrometry.

All was going well and I was starting to publish good solid biophysical papers and getting a reputation for running experiments on the analytical ultracentrifuge. And then the inevitable happened: the money run out.

Fortunately he was lucky enough to be offered a post-doc role in the Biochemistry Department at Bristol on protein-DNA interactions; he was also offered a tenure track position in the United States which he ultimately turned down, choosing to remain in the UK.

I wanted to immerse myself in protein-DNA interactions and scientifically this proved to be a wise decision. I learnt a huge amount in Steve Halford’s lab at Bristol. But there were days cycling into the University on a cold January morning when I wondered whether giving up a position in California was entirely sensible.

During this time a second child arrived making the work – life balance even more difficult.

Balancing an academic career with family life was precarious and I remember doing Saturdays in the lab leaving my son, then only a few months old asleep under my desk. I also managed to perturb several of my colleagues who were also working weekends by extending the milk choice in the fridge in the breakout room from full fat and semi-skimmed to include my wife’s carefully expressed breast milk.

Next steps

After a couple of years at Bristol, a job opportunity came up at the University of Nottingham for a lecturer in Physical Biochemistry, specialising in Analytical Ultracentrugation (AUC)

I had built up a small but solid reputation for competence with the technique and its analysis so the job looked like a good fit.

He became convinced he wouldn’t get the role though.

I went for interview and found that I was the only candidate on the short-list who wasn’t from a big internationally reputable institution. Feeling like I was going to be that day’s comic turn, I perhaps had a little too much to drink the night before the interview. There is little I remember about the affair, but as I had decided I was unlikely to be appointed, I was relaxed and talked confidently and answered the questions in a slightly quiet and earnest manner, mainly due to the after-effects of the previous night. The committee politely thanked me for my time, and I slunk off to my car to drive back to Bristol. I was about an hour down the road when my phone rang and I found I was being offered the lectureship. Stunned, I came up with a form of words that meant I would give them a decision the next day and immediately phoned my wife.

Dave accepted the offer after seeking advice from mentor Steve Halford and later in the year he and his family moved to Nottingham. He was now a Lecturer in Physical Biochemistry and the head of his own lab.

The job at Nottingham gave me many freedoms: the freedom to pursue my own projects, to hire Post-docs and PhD students and to collaborate freely with others.

At Nottingham he was able to mentor and to work with many outstanding post-doctoral researchers.

The value of a good post-doctoral collaborator cannot be underestimated, and these were complimented by many PhD students.

Current Role

It was the unsuccessful mentoring of a joint student that brought about the next stage of Dave’s career.

I had a joint student with Cameron Neylon at the ISIS Neutron Source at Harwell. This was not a productive collaboration, through no fault of either of us. After two years of trying, pushing and cajoling, the student resigned, leaving us with a pot of money but not enough to actually do things with.

After discussions with Nottingham, he was able to have the money matched and this would be used for a teaching replacement to enable Dave to spend 2 days a week at Harwell.

At the time the Research Complex at Harwell had an analytical Ultracentrifuge but no-one to run it. Simon Phillips, the founding director of the RCaH, offered me a desk in return for running the AUC.

This soon developed into a Group Leader position and the neutron source formalised a two day a week secondment from Nottingham. This became a very happy and productive time. Dave worked with Ray Owens, Martin Walsh, Steve Carr and Kostas Beis on a variety of projects.

The RCaH also appointed Dr. Gemma Harris as a permanent biophysics technician which freed me from day-to-day experiments and increased the volume of data we were able to produce. The RCaH has been a very good place to work and I have been fortunate in the advice and support of not only Simon Phillips but interim director Peter Lee and the two subsequent directors, Jim Naismith and David Payne. 

Dave’s research is now based entirely at the RCaH, with formal links to the Nottingham BBSRC Doctoral training program and the Midlands MRC IMPACT DTP. He has many visiting students coming to work with him.

Funding has always been precarious, but the value of collaboration means that a small amount of resource goes a very long way. We do not always value collaborative work in academia, traditionally celebrating first/last authorship and the principle investigator status, but if the recent COVID pandemic has shown us anything, it is that highly collaborative research is often the key to successful science.

Going forward

Everyone experiences ups and downs throughout their career.

 What keeps me going is that the research work is what I love to do, and the simple pleasures of analysing datasets and discovering things, however small, that no-one knew before is still exhilarating.

Dave has found that the years have granted wisdom allowing him to reflect back upon his career and become a better researcher.

Experience does make you a better scientist, but mostly because you get better at managing yourself and not panicking quite as much.

Going forward, Dave has secured new funding and will be welcoming some new PhD students later in the year. He doesn’t know exactly what the future holds but…

I am looking forward to the coming challenges, I think it will be fun.

Image: Courtesy of Dr. Dave Scott.