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Meet the Rough Scientists

Capraia Interview: Mike Leahy



Mike Leahy

What kind of scientist are you?
I'm a virologist, working on the influenza virus.

How did you get to where you are today?
I wasn't the ideal pupil, and left school by 'mutual agreement' much earlier than planned. I then worked as a mechanic for some time. Later, at 26 years of age, I got an A-level at night-school, and went to Oxford Brookes University (the old Poly) as a mature student. I was awarded a first class honours degree in Environmental Biology, and moved to Oxford University, where I obtained my doctorate.

Who and/or what were some of the influences on you when you were at school/university?
I hated school and any influences there were inevitably negative. Later my father was a strong influence as he had proved to me that with some hard work, there was no reason why I couldn't succeed in higher education, even after a false start.

Why did you choose to study science?
I find science intrinsically interesting. I like to know how things work, and in this respect science is very similar to mechanics.

What other interests do you have outside science?
I love foreign travel, and experiencing foreign cultures. Last year I visited Papua New Guinea, Australia, Malaysia, and around Italy. When I'm at home I try to go gliding, dirt biking, mountain-bike orienteering or hill walking each weekend. I also enjoy restoring classic cars, and own a 1969 MGC GT. During the week I keep pretty busy as well. Jasper, my six year old Boxer, is very energetic, and we go for three walks a day around the cotswold village where I live. I shoot archery with the University staff club, and train two or three nights a week at my Tae Kwon-Do club. I spend any time that is left around my local pub, which is conveniently located next door to my cottage.

What do you consider to be the greatest scientific achievements of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?
The production of vaccines, electricity, antibiotics and the development of recombinant DNA technology are all achievements that have prevented much suffering and saved countless lives. Therefore I think that they are the greatest scientific achievements of the last three centuries.

What answers would you like science to provide in the next ten years?
As I work with influenza, I suppose I am duty bound to say that I would like to provide a simple, cheap and safe cure for the 'flu' but this is highly unlikely.

Which scientist impresses you most?
Maybe Michael Faraday. He was self-educated, from a rather poor background, and did some pretty cool work with electricity.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of embarking on a career in science?
Try to do work that you find interesting. Armed with enthusiasm, you should be able to overcome most obstacles.

What is your recollection of your first involvement in science?
Some moronic old bat trying to make me remember the Periodic Table parrot fashion.

What do you hope to have achieved by contributing to the ‘Rough Science’ TV series?
It would be nice to show that not all scientists are socially retarded, ineffectual, bearded tosspots who wear socks with their sandals, reek of underarm perspiration and find any form of human interaction totally alien. Mind you I've got my work cut out.

It would also be nice to think that viewers get some idea of how dependent we are on inventions and ideas, which in their day, were real challenges. So much is now taken for granted by all of us as we go about our day-to-day life.

What would you like to be doing in ten years' time?
Sunning myself on a beach in South East Asia next to a glass of cold beer and a tolerant but beautiful lover.

What was your most memorable experience while filming ‘Rough Science’?
Capraia, where we filmed, was beautiful, and the whole project was a brilliant experience. Working with Jonathan on the generators was real fun though, as was hanging that dirty great aerial for the Castaway radio.

At parties, how do you explain to people what you do for a living?
Most people have heard of influenza, so if I say that I am trying to work out how it replicates, and in time maybe find out how to stop it, they often find it very interesting. Obscure killer viruses from the rainforest usually make a good conversation piece as well, as long as no-one is eating.

Why do you think that science sometimes has a bad press?
I think that science often has a bad press because of poor, and inaccurate reporting. To me, the classic, is that reporters seem to use the words virus and bacteria indiscriminately. Without being boring, the differences between viruses and bacteria are far greater than that between humans and mildew. In addition, well-intentioned, but poorly informed, non-scientists often go off half-cocked.

Which aspect(s) of science frightens you most?
The risk of further accidents at nuclear power stations, the possible release of germ-warfare agents which may have got into the 'wrong hands' after the collapse of the Eastern block, and antibiotic resistance caused by their overuse in agriculture. The consequences would be dire in any of the above scenarios.