Name: Dr James Briscoe
Research institution: Developmental Biology, MRC National Institute for Medical Research
Research career length: 20 years
Research Council: Medical Research Council (MRC) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Location: London, England
Brief summary of research: Developmental biology, embryology, neuroscience, systems biology
A-levels: Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology
BSc in Microbiology and Virology, University of Warwick
PhD in molecular biology from Cancer Research UK/King’s College, London
Postdoctoral research at Columbia University, New York
Group Leader at MRC National Institute for Medical Research
The predictable and highly structured development of the central nervous systems that medical researcher James Briscoe studies, contrasts with an unplanned and largely unstructured route through his career. For James, personal drive and self-motivation are key to success in science.
It’s tempting to construct a nice neat historical account of my career, but in reality it came about through a series of poorly thought through, seemingly random decisions - a bit like evolution. I've never had a career plan beyond a general idea of what I might want to do next. I’ve taken advantage of opportunities as they've arisen, making decisions based on what I enjoyed and seemed to be good at. I have often sought advice from people I respect and trust, when I've felt unsure about what to do.
Our research looks at how the central nervous system (CNS) is formed in embryos. Despite its complexity, the CNS is built very carefully and in a highly organised way. This precision is necessary for it to carry out its function. Our work focuses on the spinal cord, which is the part of the CNS that contains the nerves that allow us to sense our environment and respond to it by moving muscles. Our goal is to identify the genes involved in spinal cord development and determine how they work to produce and organise the different types of nerve cells found in this part of the CNS. A better understanding of the development of the spinal cord will shed light on diseased and damaged nervous systems, and we hope will lead to therapies for these conditions.
I lead a team of ten researchers, including undergraduates, PhD students, post docs, technicians and clinical scientists. I am responsible for managing my lab - directing research, supervising individual projects, recruiting team members, writing papers and securing funding. In addition, I have some management responsibilities for the department and institute. I am also a member of an independent committee that reviews grant applications and makes recommendations on which research projects to fund. This process means that experienced scientists working in the same area of research make these important decisions.
A typical working day might involve discussing results or experiments with lab members, writing (and reading) research papers, and reviewing others’ work. I also help analyse data, which means a little bit of computer programming and maths. I often attend seminars and group meetings. I spend about one-fifth of my time travelling to give research seminars and guest lectures, or to attend conferences. Much of this travel is international. In the last 12 months I've been to France, Germany, Switzerland, USA, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and Australia.
I enjoy working with very smart people, discussing ideas and interpreting data, and doing things and seeing things that no one else has seen or done. Research for me, means a continued challenge of always having to produce new ideas, and being a member of an international community.
Scientific research has contributed significantly to making our modern world. It is a truly international activity and offers flexibility and personal control. The collaborative nature of modern science does require the skills to navigate occasional tensions that this raises. Perhaps most of all, it requires personal drive and the ability to motivate yourself.