Interview with Professor Patrick Chinnery, Foulkes Foundation Medal winner


The third Foulkes Foundation Medal was awarded to Professor Patrick Chinnery FMedSci. Professor Chinnery was presented with his medal at the Academy’s Annual General Meeting on 24 November 2011. Here he tells us where he keeps his Foulkes Foundation Medal, what skills tomorrow's researchers need and why he started playing the flute when he turned 40.

Did you always want to be a clinician?

Yes, from a very early age. My inspiration was my next door neighbour, a chest physician. My sister is now a GP, but at that time, there was no one medical in my family.

What drew you to research?

I have always been fascinated by biological questions. As a medical undergraduate, I became interested in the brain. I did an intercalated degree in neuroscience, and my interest in research grew. I was at Newcastle University then and have been most of my professional life.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

Inherited neurological diseases are, even by neurologists, considered to be a nihilistic area to work in because there is a gene defect causing a problem and little can be done about it. The problem is chronic and it can go on for decades. What I want to do is use the technologies that are available to develop new treatments to improve these seemingly incurable conditions, both for the individual, and to reduce the impact these diseases have on families.

What part of the job keeps you excited?

The PhD students and postdocs I work with. They come in enthusiastic about some information they have gathered in the lab, which we need to discuss and try to interpret. That is the most exciting part of my week.  I also find my clinical work very satisfying. I deliberately do this on a Friday, so that the week always ends on a high!

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I have four children and we live rurally. At the weekend I like to be in the wilderness. So, I run off road with my two dogs at my own slow pace. I’m not bothered about the weather! The other thing I do is play the flute. I played it as a child and gave up when I went to university. Then I took it up again when I was 40. I have weekly flute lessons and I’ve been working through the grades – I am very proud to say that this year I got a distinction in grade 7! It’s a great way to take your mind off the issues you deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Do you work with industry?

Absolutely, yes. The clinical trial we published last year on a rare genetic eye disease could not have happened were it not for the fact that 5-6 years ago I started talking to this small pharmaceutical company based in Switzerland who were interested in working with me to set up and deliver the clinical trial. I would absolutely recommend working with industry to help address patients’ needs.

What was the significance of the Foulkes award to you personally?

The Foulkes award was a very significant event in my life because it was really the first external recognition I got for the work I had done up to that date. I realise it’s a very competitive process and so I consider it a great honour. Coming to London and being given the award in the presence of Maureen, who looks after the charity in memory of her father, was very rewarding.

Where do you keep the medal?

In my office. It came home with me for a brief stint and now it’s back at work.

What skills does the researcher of the future need?

Literacy in bioinformatics. I was at the tail end of an era where molecular biology was the skill that you ought to have, because it provided you with the tools that were having the most impact at that time. Now the bottleneck is in having clinicians who are confident in informatics, allowing them to harness and interpret the enormous amount of data that we can generate using new technologies.

What can’t you live without?

My wife, who will never read this because she isn’t medical. While I work she provides stability for my children (and my dogs!), and I am extremely grateful for that.

What is the most interesting piece of research you have recently read about?

The ENCODE project. There were 10 recent papers in Nature and Science arising from a massive consortium looking at non-coding bits of DNA and how they might regulate the functions of genes. The details are fascinating, but the overarching message is that all this previously considered junk DNA is actually contributing to our makeup. It unearths a completely new level of complexity in understanding the genome and how it might influence disease.

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