PHILIPPA Borrill, 24, is a Swindon woman in the final stages of PhD research into improving the nutritional value of wheat. She is based at the specialist John Innes Centre in Norwich and recently took part in science competition SET for Britain, describing her research to a panel of MPs and experts...
“THERE’S still this image,” said Philippa Borrill, “of the mad scientist alone in the lab with bubbling test tubes.
“That’s not the case. You’re with a team, talking together, discussing what you’re doing.”
Another cliched image of the scientist is an unworldly person plying obscure backwaters of equations and numbers with little relevance to everyday life, but the young Swindon woman defies that one, too.
Her work might one day make the difference between famine and plenty for millions of people.
The title of her research, ‘NAM-B1 Transcription Factor And The Control Of Grain Nutrient Content In Wheat’, gives the lay person little idea of its significance, but can be explained in a simple sentence: “I’m working on a gene that organises other genes and switches them on and off.”
The genes switched on and off include those which decide how nutritious the wheat will be, so isolating the gene controlling this has far-reaching implications.
“Wheat provides people with about 20 per cent of their calories worldwide,” said Philippa. “It also provides about 25 per cent of the protein eaten worldwide.
“The gene I’m working with also affects iron and zinc content, and iron and zinc are very important for people’s health.
“A lot of people are affected by anaemia caused by a lack of iron, so if we can improve iron content we can prevent a lot of diseases.”
Philippa was born in Winchester to an archaeologist father and a financial consultant mother, both now retired. Her younger brother is studying Material Science at Oxford. The family moved to Swindon when Philippa was a child after her father took a job with the National Trust.
Her schooling was at St Margaret’s, in Calne, and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where science lessons always fascinated her.
“I found it really interesting and challenging,” she said. “Also, I read a book about the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick. I thought that was world-changing and a really exciting thing. From there I wanted to find out more about science.”
Another scientist Philippa admires is the late Norman Borlaug, whose work on developing disease-resistant, high-yield wheat won a Nobel Prize and saw him credited with saving a billion lives.
She studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge, graduating in 2010 and is as fascinated by genetics as ever.
Something else that appealed was having practical goals rather than simply investigating something for its own sake. “It’s having an effect on people all over the world,” she said.
Philippa is due to complete her PhD studies at the John Innes Centre in Norwich in the autumn, after which she plans further research in the field.
There is currently a shortage of young scientists in general and young female scientists in particular, with many young people discarding science in favour of arts and humanities subjects when the time comes to select exam options.
Philippa has opinions about both issues. “I think there’s a perception that science is hard and sometimes seems a bit boring – that you’re given a sheet of problems and you don’t know the answers.
“People need to have their interest in science sparked. The crime scene investigation programmes do a good job of making science look interesting, but I also think a lot of people at school don’t realise how wide the effects of science are. Nearly everything has a component of science in it in some way.”
The issue of female pupils opting for science – or rather, not doing so – is even more worrying. It was recently revealed, for example, that 90 per cent of applicants for places at Swindon’s new University Technical College are male.
Philippa recently took part in an activity organised by the Institute of Physics in an attempt to redress the balance and find out how the imbalance came to exist in the first place.
The girls Philippa and her fellow volunteers spoke to were impressed, with many saying they hadn’t realised how directly science affected people’s lives.
She would like to see more young people opt for science, and has advice and encouragement for those who do: “Study subjects that you’re interested in – if you find it hard, it’ll be easier to put in the work than it would be in a subject that doesn’t catch your imagination.”