News / 11 September 2020

Share something about yourself most people wouldn’t know.
My favourite book is The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks. When I (used to?) travel internationally, I would read this almost every time I flew. I must have read it almost 20 times. I recommend this book to anyone, even if you’re not a sci-fi fan.

Why did you become a scientist?
I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world and understanding how things work. I actually signed up for engineering at university, but then the training day bored me, so I stumped for science instead! Nothing can compare to that feeling when you finally get to answer a question that has been bugging you for years – where else do you get to do that?

What are your scientific interests?
I am fascinated by large, complex biosynthetic enzymes. These are somehow so easy to visualise as a factory assembly line, and yet the more we learn, the further from the truth this seems! In fact, they are incredible in how they manage to just work, which actually is an advantage, as then evolving these into new pathways to make new molecules is far easier than if they were perfect little molecular factories.

Name one tool you can’t do without. 
Synthetic chemistry. My work has always used chemistry to generate tools, probes and standards to explore how enzymes work. Without it, I could not do what I do!

Which unresolved question would you most like to answer? 
I really want to see how a peptide is assembled by a non-ribosomal peptide synthetase. These enzymes are so flexible they’re really resistant to most structural techniques we have, so it is going to take some new approaches and a bit of out-of-the-box thinking to solve this problem.

What has been a highlight of your research career to date? 
The first time (in my postdoc) I saw the density in a crystal structure for an enzyme complex that I had been working on for my entire PhD. In that moment, more than five years of work suddenly all made sense. To me, this is always a powerful reminder of just how important it is to be able to visualise the machineries of life that we work on.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 
The best advice I ever got was “data is eternal, interpretation is ephemeral”. Some of the shortest papers I’ve published have mountains of supporting information, so that even if I get my analysis wrong, the work is not wasted – others can still use the data and we hopefully all move forward as a field. There’s nothing worse than people publishing work that no one else can reproduce!

More about Max’s research

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