Glenn Morris Q & A

Glenn Morris from Keele University has been working for over a decade, and provides our final SMA Scientist Q & A of 2012.

When and why did you first decide you wanted to be a scientist?

Almost by chance, I ended up doing Chemistry, Physics and Maths, instead of Latin and Greek, in my final years at school. The choice of academic research was decided in my final year in Cambridge, mainly through laboratory classes, where I encountered people like Asher Korner, Nick Hales and “guests” from the MRC Centre in Hills Road. In one of Nick Hales’ labs, we each had our own little project and I found that adding a drug to fat pads increased something-or-other, so I asked Nick if it was the right answer. He just laughed and said “I don’t know; it’s never been done before”. I was hooked on research and on people who can’t resist asking new questions, even when teaching. Asher worked on rat liver and, at the start of our lab class, he emphasized the critical importance of keeping tissues cold. Ten minutes later, he strolled around the lab and transferred almost everyone’s tissue from the warm bench to their cold ice-bucket, with just a silent smile. Lab research is all about knowing in advance what can go wrong, but he did it with such breathtaking flair that I was hooked again.

How did you come to work on SMA?

Newly-identified disease-causing genes were always our starting point and our work on monoclonal antibodies for SMA began shortly after identification of the SMN gene in 1995. Before that, we had worked on other neuromuscular disorders, such as Duchenne muscular dystrphy and myotonic dystrophies.

What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

A survivor.

If you are not in the lab you are...

Out birdwatching.

Describe yourself in three words

Suave, sophisticated, and self-deluded.

What has been the most important moment of your career so far?

In retrospect, it was getting a research development grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales in the late 1980s after writing a brief and hurried application. The concept was simple: “we’ll apply what we have done successfully for Duchenne muscular dystrophy to other neuromuscular disorders” and people like simple ideas. My lab grew from 3-4 people to 8-9 people and I had to become a bit more “professional” about research.

What is your most memorable finding relating to SMA?

In the early days, my research student, Phil Young, showed that you can’t understand everything about the function of SMN protein (the missing protein in SMA) by doing research only on HeLa cells (a popular cell line for biochemists), since SMN behaves differently in different body tissues and in early development.

What is your favourite conference location?

Victor Dubowitz finds fabulous locations for World Muscle Society conferences. My favourites were Kruger National Park in South Africa (2000) and Iguassu Falls in Brazil (2005). When the talks got boring you could watch birds out of the window.

What is the best scientific advice you ever received?

I can’t remember anyone having the courage to give me advice. “Give up public speaking” might have been a good one, but no-one ever said it.

If you could start your career all over again, are there things you would do differently?

I would have tried earlier to collaborate more (especially with people who know how to collaborate) and to be nicer to people (especially collaborators). To work well, collaboration should be an end in itself, not just a means to a personal end.

In your opinion, what makes a good scientist?

Optimism and perseverance, these days especially.

Where do you see the SMA research field in the next 10 years?

Nothing would surprise me.