Scientist Stories: Meet Dr Gavin Kelsey

Scientist Stories: Meet Dr Gavin Kelsey

Scientist Stories: Meet Dr Gavin Kelsey

In 2021, the Institute launched a new video series called Scientist Stories where we highlight the scientists behind our world-leading research. In this series, we discover more about what they do and how they got to where they are now. In this latest edition, we chat to Gavin Kelsey, a senior group leader and head of the Epigenetics research programme, about his science, career and interests outside of the lab. Watch the video on our YouTube channel or read the profile below. 

Could you tell us a little bit about your area of research?

My group is interested in epigenetic information, how it is added to genes and how it stays with some genes between generations and can have a lifelong impact on what genes do. So what do we mean by epigenetics? It's something that is beyond the pure DNA sequence. It is something that is completely normal and part of our biology. It refers to chemical tags that are added directly to the DNA strand itself, or to chemical tags that are added on to the chromosomes and help package the DNA tightly within the nucleus of each cell. And this epigenetic information is very important in particular, giving lifelong memory to certain decisions that cells make. So epigenetic states help ensure that some genes will remain active and will help ensure that other genes are silent in any particular cell type. For example, it's there to ensure that genes that are meant to be active in liver cells are active and genes that should be active in nerve cells aren't accidentally being expressed in liver cells. In addition to this sort of static epigenetic information, we also understand that some epigenetic information can vary through the life course or can be influenced by what we experience or what we eat. We're very interested in understanding how different levels of information are used throughout the lifetime.

As a group leader, can you tell us a little bit about what a typical day might look like for you?

Not sure we have a typical day anymore. I guess the days I look forward to most would be those with the weekly meetings I have with my research group, our lab meeting in which postdocs or students are presenting progress in their research projects. This is a great event. We celebrate advances people are making and also we provide constructive help and advice when projects aren't progressing necessarily in the way that people have hoped so we help troubleshoot technical difficulties and things like that. The other highlights in the week are the seminars that we have as an epigenetics programme, this is in the wider programme where similarly we will have postdocs and students and even group leaders presenting projects or ideas in which they are soliciting input from their colleagues. That is, that is kind of the highlight of being a group leader here; experiencing that collegial environment. So other than that, inevitably one is sitting in meetings at various levels of the Institute, these are critically important for ensuring the smooth running of the Institute and the programme and helping to steer the science in the direction that we want it to go. Aside from that, I, as all group leaders, will spend time working with organisations outside the Institute because we are part of this peer review process where we are helping to judge the science of other scientists. We are reading manuscripts for publication, and we are reading grant applications and this is what we all live by, using colleagues to help us identify when we're doing science right, and when we've got good ideas that should be funded.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to be in the role that you're in now? What sort of things did you study and how did your career bring you to this point?

I studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and I think that's because when I was doing A levels I was really fascinated by biology. I wanted to understand how things worked in cells and I remember being exposed to things like glycolysis for the first time and you understand how molecules such as glucose enters the cell, is broken down, and then is used to create energy for the cell. So that's what led me to wanting to do biochemistry. I then moved on to doing genetics as a PhD and I think that was because I was starting to become fascinated in genes. This is in the mid-80s, long before we had the human genome sequence and we were only just beginning to understand that genes were short, simple stretches of DNA, but they could be interrupted by what were called at the time ‘intervening’ sequences and what we now know is introns so we were beginning to understand that the genes were so much more complicated than we had imagined. From there, I think my fascination with genes and the genome has remained. I did a postdoc in Heidelberg in the German Cancer Research Centre, and we were interested at the time in trying to identify genes that controlled how liver cells developed. And again, this was before we had genome sequence available. So the genes that were responsible for this particular phenomenon had been defined through genetic resources. We knew there was a big chunk of a particular chromosome in the mouse was vital for the development of the liver and we were using what at the time were called positional cloning approaches to narrow down genetic markers to genes of interest. I think that experiences as a postdoc really brought home to me the importance of using genetic resources to identify normal developmental biology. I then came to Babraham in 1995. The area of biology that I decided I was particularly interested in pursuing was this new phenomenon of epigenetics. And at the time, Babraham was one of the best places in the world to study that area further and remains so to this day.

Do you have any interests and things that you'd like to do outside of science?

It would be great to have a little bit more time to exercise those interests. I think my interest in biology goes back a long time to my childhood and there are things from that period of my life that I retained to this day. I'm a very keen birdwatcher, that's kind of what brought me into biology to begin with, and I hope to spend so much more time doing that in future years as well. I love being outdoors. I've been a keen cyclist for many years, I maintain an allotment and so it's great to get your hands dirty, and to switch off entirely. So, yeah, being outdoors and getting grubby.

If you could offer a piece of advice to people similarly interested in the natural world or in science and how they can see that as a career, what advice would you offer?

I think you have to follow your passions, I hope I've attempted to do that through my career. If you're interested in a particular area of science, a particular area of research, don't be afraid as a student to contact people, research groups, university departments where you think this area of science is being pursued. As a group leader, we love to hear from interested students, undergraduate students or people wishing to do a PhD, we're really interested to hear from those people who are motivated to carry on in that area. So if you've got a passion, follow it and go out and make those contacts.