Getting froggy with it: Gary McDowell at Real Scientists

We bid farewell the to splendid CHRISTMAS LECTURES team at the Royal Institution and BBC: Kevin Fong, Jon Farrow, Olympia Brown and Lucy Haken. It’s been a great insight into the enormous amount of work and the processes involved with producing the CHRISTMAS LECTURES and it was delightful to meet the lecturer himself, Kevin Fong, and everyone involved in the behind the scenes work.


Now, we would like to introduce our next curator, Dr Gary McDowell(@BiophysicalFrog), postdoctoral researcher, Tufts University, Boston, USA. Born in th UK, Gary trained at the University of Cambridge before heading to the US for his further research. Gary works on left-right patterning in frogs, which can tell us about such patterning in humans – as well as how birth defects might arise. Here’s Gary, in his own words: gmbiopic2


Nobody in my family is a scientist; my parents are both librarians and I loved to read anything I could get my hands on, including science. I got an opportunity during school to go on a summer science course at Imperial College London, which was a great opportunity to not only do more advanced science but, because I was living in the Highlands of Scotland at the time, it was also my first exposure to people who were all applying to elite institutions, which I had never seriously considered, and so I decided to apply and got accepted to the University of Cambridge. I enjoyed learning about how things work at the molecular level and ended up specializing in chemistry, but with a heavy biological influence. I was able to do an undergraduate masters and the project was a wonderful experience which convinced me to do a PhD and become an academic.


I have always been interested in proteins – their structure, how they function, how they are regulated – and fell into developmental biology along the way. Currently I’m studying cell biology and how that can be affected by protein structure and regulation, and how that ends up affecting the whole organism. Being able to go from playing with molecules and changing a whole embryo – or, even better, sometimes having no effect whatsoever – is fascinating to study.


I am studying left-right patterning, how organs like the heart and gut end up on one side of the body or the other. Many animals look symmetrical from the outside but inside their organs are asymmetrical. Also, many different species have the same layout of their organs – everyone has their heart in the “right” place (which is actually on their left)! But in trying to figure out how left-right asymmetry is generated during embryo development, there is disagreement in exactly how symmetry is broken, and when, and the current favorite model requires that many species evolved completely different ways of setting up their left and right sides – even though they end up in similar places. So I’m studying the cytoskeleton, the structure that keeps the cell’s shape and also provides transport across the cell, and the effect that can have immediately after an egg is fertilized on left-right patterning. This has come from a lot of evidence that individual cells can differentiate left from right, using the cytoskeleton. I’m investigating the effect of proteins from plants, fruit flies, mice and other species in frog embryos on disrupting the cytoskeleton just after fertilization and finding I can disrupt left-right patterning. I’m hoping this can point to a mechanism that may have been a common origin for all species to set up their left-right asymmetry, even if they have devleft-right patterning. I’m hoping this can point to a mechanism that may have been a common origin for all species to set up their left-right asymmetry, even if they have deviated away from this over time.


Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects in the U.S. and can arise from defects in left-right patterning. Understanding how the left and right sides of the body are correctly set up is very important as you are generally fine if all organs are the correct way round, or all flipped; but if one organ is out of place, it causes lots of health problems. Besides this, the work we are doing looking at the effects of these cytoskeletal proteins is throwing up all sorts of interesting results that suggest embryo development is able to recover from left-right problems a lot of the time, and figuring out how cells can fix these defects could have implications for all kinds of deficiencies in proper tissue development, helping with diseases of improper development, and potentially helping us understand how to grow organs and tissues properly in culture.


I am very involved in science advocacy and policy. I’m an organizer of the Future of Research group (, which is a grass-roots movement trying to involve junior scientists in discussions about improving science, including how we train scientists, how we fund research, and how we publish and communicate work. We’ve had conferences in 4 locations in the U.S. so far, and are becoming increasingly included in discussions with the science establishment about improving the way science is done.


I play the tuba, and have played with wind bands in the U.S. and brass bands and orchestras in Scotland and England. I don’t play as much as I like, but I really enjoy music.


I love to travel, so ideally a day-trip/long weekend somewhere nearby with exploration is my favorite way to unwind.


Please welcome Gary to Real Scientists!



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