Tom Gillingwater Q & A

We begin the series with Tom Gillingwater, who works at the University of Edinburgh and has been conducting research on SMA for nearly five years.

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

I don’t think I made the decision to fully commit to a career in science until I was at university studying human anatomy. It was there that I came into contact with several excellent scientists whose interest in research, and neuroscience research in particular, was infectious.

How did you come to work on SMA?

I have a long-standing interest in understanding why points of communication between nerve cells (known as synapses) are particularly vulnerable across a range of diseases affecting the nervous system. A chance meeting with Kevin Talbot at a research conference led to us examining whether synapses are particularly affected in mouse models of SMA. It blossomed from there.

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

I would love to be an orchestral conductor or professional choral singer, although both require talent and skills that I am sadly lacking!

If you are not In the lab, you are...

At home with family.

Describe yourself in three words

Loyal, compassionate and reliable (I’d like to think so at least)

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

I don’t think I could pick out one defining moment, but I would say that the most important aspect of my career has been the talented and dedicated people I have been fortunate to work alongside.

What is your most memorable finding relating to SMA?

Several years ago we showed that synapses formed between nerves and muscles (known as neuromuscular junctions) are an important and early target in the disease. This has changed how researchers view the underlying causes of the disease and is helping to guide the development, targeting and testing of new therapies. More recently we found that SMA can directly affect skeletal muscle, suggesting that both nerves and muscles need to be targeted to develop treatments for SMA (click here for an article on this work).

What Is your favourite conference location?

Dresden (a really beautiful city).

What is the best scientific advice you ever received?

Two things stand out in my memory: 1) Be open and honest, making sure you can go home and look yourself in the mirror every night 2) Develop a tough skin, as reviews of your papers and grants are often painful

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

I would have paid more attention in my A level chemistry class!

In your opinion, what makes a good scientist?

Honesty and integrity, in the absence of egotism.

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

Hopefully non-existent, as a complete cure will have been discovered and none of us will need to work on the disease any more. More realistically, I guess that lots of the current exciting technology and research findings will have found their way to the clinic, allowing us to build on these successes as we work towards a cure.