Getting to Know- David Gray

This week (2nd October 2019) we announced that David Gray, Head of Biology for the Drug Discovery Unit, has been promoted to Professor of Translational Biology.  We caught up with David  to find out what set him on the path to becoming a Professor.

David Gray shows a group of visitors around the WCAIR labs
David Gray talks to visitors on a tour of WCAIR labs.

Question: What is your earliest science memory ?
Answer: Grainy, black and white Open University programmes on BBC2 in the early 1970’s. I don’t know if the programmes were filmed in colour or the TV was black and white and I have no recollection of the content, just the texture!

Q: Did a particular person(s) or event start your career as a scientist?
A: Combination of reading Ritchie Calder’s ‘The Life Savers’ and my brother being severely asthmatic as a child. We shared a bedroom so I remember the sound of his breathing and the ambulance journeys. I wanted to help make a ‘lifesaver’ preferably for asthma. I was lucky enough to be part of the team that developed Fluticasone Furoate, a component of a number of marketed drugs, including one for asthma. My brother has never been prescribed these…. but my son has been taking this medicine for around 18 months.

Q: What characteristics make a good scientist?
A: A genuine interest in the subject, whatever it is, is a good grounding for most occupations and essential for a scientist. I think imagination, persistence and a rigorous attention to detail help.

Q: Do you think being a scientist impacts the way you approach everything in life?
A: Yes – much to my family’s annoyance, I bring the analytical skills I have to bear on all problems.

Q: Do non-science life experiences contribute towards success in the lab?
A: Yes – particularly when the team is trying to find medicines. The empathy for the patients and understanding of the environment provide the motivation to go the extra mile. The diversity of experiences and cultures is also of great benefit in looking at problems from multiple angles.

Q: What motivates you to come into work every day?
A: The need to find more medicines – there are so many poorly treated patients.

Q: Is there any part of human lives where science can’t help or inform?
A: I think there are many areas where science can’t currently help but few where it can’t inform.

Q: Was there a ‘sliding doors’ moment when you could have chosen a different career path?
A: Not really – I was an excellent cellist (and very mediocre pianist) in my early teens and briefly considered a career in music. However, my desire to be involved in drug discovery was strong even then.

Q: Do you ever wish you had chosen a different career?
No – vocationally driven to be a pharmacologist.

Q: If we had to put all our science activities into solving only one problem currently impacting humans which one would you choose?
A: Dementia – from the patients point of view, it’s an intensely frightening condition that slowly robs individuals of memories and reduces their personality. From the friends and family perspective, it is heart-breaking to no longer be recognised.

Q: You are the WCAIR academic lead for public engagement.
How do we help the science community and general public understand each other better?
Accept that this is a key part of your role as a scientist – if you are only talking high end jargon to a narrow community and can’t explain the context and significance of what you are doing to a lay audience then you may have lost sight of the bigger picture. Seek all and every opportunity to talk and engage – don’t wait for the public to come to you. Don’t bounce in to tick your public engagement box and then move on – your ulterior motivation will shine through. Try to build long-term relationship with communities.

How do we encourage people from communities where there a few science role models to train as scientists?
A: I think sharing the wonder of the scientific world in terms that children, in particular, understand. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses that allow a completely new range of colours to be seen. Encourage the simple questions with difficult or no answers. Show the challenges and look for ideas. This can light a spark that can get an individual or group enthusiastic. We can help nurture this by engaging with their teachers.

What do you think scientists need to learn from the public?
A: What the real problems and issues are – there are examples of scientists developing beautiful technical answers to the wrong questions.

David Gray with scone, doughnut and cup of coffee

Born: Glasgow.  Grew up: Clydebank.

Favourite Book: Espedair Street (Iain Banks)

Favourite Film: Hopscotch

Favourite computer game: My son laughs at my incompetence in any/all computer games

Favourite thing to do at the weekend: Hill walking, building steam locomotives

Desert Island Luxury: Runcible spoon

Which record would you save from the incoming Tay tide: Brahms German Requiem (4th movement) or the Glenn Gould version of the Bach Goldberg Variations