Judith Sleeman

Congratulations, Anouk. I'm sure the money will be really well spent in Zanzibar.

Favourite Thing: The moment when the penny drops: when I get a new result that suddenly makes some weird old results make sense.



Canon Evans First School, Bedworth; St James Middle School, Bulkington; Bablake School, Coventry; King Edward VI Sixth Form College, Nuneaton; Bristol University; Edinburgh University. I’m not telling you what years unless everyone else does!


BSc (hons) and a PhD

Work History:

Before university at Equity and Law Life Assurance in Coventry. After university at the College of Life Sciences then Ninewells Hospital both at Dundee University.

Current Job:



University of St Andrews

Me and my work

I work on how the cells of our body use the information stored in our genes: in particular the amazingly dynamic molecular ‘machines’ that edit the messages written in the genes so they can be understood by the rest of the cell.

All of the genes in our cells and the information they contain are stored as DNA in the nucleus of the cell (like the yolk of a fried egg). Most genes carry the instructions to make proteins, which are made outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm (like the white of the egg). So that the DNA can be kept safely within the nucleus and the proteins can be made in the cytoplasm, the cell uses a messenger called messenger RNA. Messenger RNA is very like DNA but it can get out of the nucleus through tiny holes: the DNA has to stay put.

RNA is first made as an exact copy of DNA but there’s lots of extra stuff in this copy that is not needed to make the final protein. This has to be taken out before the RNA can get out of the nucleus. This is called ‘splicing’. It’s a bit like having one long video of a family wedding and editing it to go straight from the church to the reception without having a ten minute shot of the inside of the car on the way between the two.

Splicing happens really quickly and the cell has to get it right every time. It uses a complex machine called the ‘spliceosome’ to this . The spliceosome is made up of hundreds of proteins. I work on how and where the cell makes the spliceosome and how all the different parts of it move around within the nucleus.

I know it all sounds a bit abstract but it really is vital that the cell gets all of this right and there are several diseases that happen if it doesn’t. I also work on an inherited type of motor neuron disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). SMA happens if cells have too little of a protein that is needed to make important parts of the spliceosome. At the moment no-one understands why or how.

My Typical Day

Good day: in the lab doing experiments. Bad day: stuck in my office doing paperwork.

I usually start by checking my email to see if there’s anything urgent I need to do. Then I go to the tissue culture room to check on my cells. I grow them in plastic flasks and feed them with red liquid that has sugar and proteins and salt and stuff in it. They are my boss. If they need attention they can’t wait or they will die and ruin all my experiments. On a good day, I get to do experiments in the lab or fire lasers at cells down a microscope. If my experiments have been going well, I might spend the day working on a paper explaining my experiments. On an OK day I might spend some time writing a grant to ask for money to do more experiments. On a bad day I get stuck with dull paperwork.

What I'd do with the money

I’d use it to fund short placements in my lab for secondary school students.

There’s no better way to learn about science than to try it for yourself: I’d use the money so I could let secondary school students spend a week in my lab doing some experiments. Probably we would grow up some DNA in bacteria and put it into human cells. The gene we would use makes a human protein, found in the nucleus of the cell, attached to a protein from jellyfish that glows bright green down the microscope if you shine blue light on it. Then we would look at the human cells down the microscope and make movies of them.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

I asked at home and they came up with ‘big fat nuisance’. Bit harsh, I think. I like to think I’m tenacious and imaginative. I have to confess to messy.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I’ve usually got my iPod on shuffle as I’m easily bored! The last album I listened to all the way through was by Imelda May, so she must be my current favourite.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

What EVER? I’ll have to have a think about that one…

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I’d like to be taller, cleverer and less socially inept.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist! When I was little I wanted to be an opera singer, but I can’t sing a note.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not that often. The odd detention here and there but not for anything serious.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I’m hoping the best stuff is yet to come! I did once get a picture I’d taken down the microscope chosen for a text book. That was good for my ego, but a long time ago now.

Tell us a joke.

Are you sure? Q: How many ears does Captain Kirk have? A: Three- a left ear, a right ear and a final front-ear.

Other stuff

Work photos:

Where I like to be:
Where I sometimes get stuck:
My incubator full of cells:
My blood!! The arrow is pointing to a red blood cell (erythrocyte) lying on it’s side so you can see how much like a doughnut it is (bigger picture below). I don’t work on red blood cells because they don’t have a nucleus. Except in chickens…
Some links to things that answer some of the questions I’ve been asked in better ways than I can!
Apoptosis (cell ‘suicide’):
Original discussion on apoptosis is here:

do you think cells can kill themselves?

DNA Replication:
Radio programme (Jim al-Khalili) about whether creatures can evolve fast enough to beat climate change:

A couple of links to pictures of nuclear pores (I hope you can open them, can’t post the actual pictures because of copyright! You might need to copy and paste the links). Everything that needs to get in or out of the nucleus needs to get through these pores. Transport between the nucleus is very tightly controlled, so the pores are made up of many different proteins with different jobs.

Really stunning picture from an electron microscope: the nuclear pores are the things that look like little ‘studs’ in the centre of the picture.

Nuclear pores in a yeast nucleus. Even in yeast, the nuclear pores are very complicated structures. They’ve been coloured in in blue on this scanning electon microscope picture.

A picture of a cell looking a bit like a fried egg, for @blytheacres
and a nucleus, looking more like an easter egg!