Introducing... biophysicist, Jamie Rickman

Having studied physics as an undergraduate, Jamie Rickman joined the Crick in 2015 as one of our first biophysicists. We caught up with Jamie to find out about her PhD, the transition from physical sciences into life sciences and her future career ambitions.
Jamie Rickman

The Crick is a biomedical research institute, but you’re a physicist. How does that work?

As the only biophysicist in the Microtubule Cytoskeleton Architecture and Dynamics Laboratory, I work alongside a very talented group of biomedical scientists to understand more about the molecular scaffolding inside our cells. They do what we call ‘in vitro’ experiments, taking cellular components outside of the cell and rebuilding them in a laboratory dish. I build computational models that enable us to simulate these experiments on a computer.

The beauty of a computational model is that you can run thousands of simulations and change any of the variables you want – which can help us make predictions about what we should investigate next in the lab. So the two feed into each other really well.

What is your specific research focus?

The cell machinery that I’m most interested in is the spindle –  a structure made up of thousands of proteins that separates chromosomes during cell division so that each ‘daughter’ cell has a copy of the right set of DNA instructions.

For my PhD, I’ve been collaborating with experimentalists in the lab to work out how the spindle is built. Spindle formation and chromosome separation is actually a very mechanical process, so it’s a perfect system for studying the physics of biology.

What inspired you to transition from pure physics to biophysics?

When I was doing my physics undergraduate at Imperial, and was thinking about what to do next, I thought that the questions that biology was trying to answer seemed really exciting. So I did a one-year Modelling Biological Complexity Master’s at UCL (CoMPLEX) to help me learn how to apply my skillset to biological problems. And then I ended up here!

What have been the biggest challenges?

For a long time, it felt like I was speaking a different language to my closest collaborators in the lab. I was talking about computational tools and model parameters, and they were talking about the specific biochemical readouts of their experiments. It took us a while, but we now have a common language that allows us to communicate with each other.

Does anyone else understand it?

No (she laughs). Except probably Thomas, our lab head.

How did you get better at communicating with each other?

Part of it is just getting used to the terminology of the other person’s language over time, and the other part is actively trying to get better at communicating your own science. Public Engagement activities at the Crick have actually been amazingly helpful at refining that skill: if a non-scientist member of the public can understand you, then your lab members probably can too!

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

I’d probably tell myself not to be put off when things get really hard. Studying any subject in depth, you will always come up against things that are conceptually difficult to understand. And failure is normal, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. With the right mentorship and self-study, you will get there. I’ve been really fortunate to have really supportive mentors both here at the Crick, and at UCL. That’s helped a lot.    

What’s next for you?

One thing I’ve really enjoyed throughout my PhD is the data science part – deciphering the story that the data is trying to tell you! I’d want to carry that on in whatever I do next, in science research or elsewhere. I’m currently a volunteer at DataKind – a company that brings scientists and social change organisations together to collaborate on analytical projects that maximise social change, so working somewhere with a similar approach would be amazing. But I have to finish my thesis first!

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