Andrew McKinley

Wondering whether I should have a different photo!

Favourite Thing: I love colour – in particular the “Barking Dog” reaction, or any spectacular ‘flame tests’ of metal salts!



Leicester Grammar School, 1992-2000


Imperial College, Chemistry 2000-2003, Newcastle University, Physical Chemistry 2003-2008

Work History:

University of St Andrews


University of St Andrews

Current Job:

Resesarch Associate

Me and my work

I use lasers to pick up and move microscopic objects such as cells – by not touching them, we don’t damage them!

Light is amazing stuff, and all too often we take it for granted. In the field of Biology, the existing tools for controlling cells involved using mechanical tweezers to pick them up, and using micro-fine needles for doing injections into the cells.  Within our research in Physics, we are now using nothing but light – a laser beam in fact – to pick up and control the cells without actually touching them, and if we aren’t touching them, we aren’t harming them! Even more, we are at the point where we can inject materials into a cell for work on genetic modification.

In my work, we are using a laser to pick up a special type of crystal and making it spin on the spot. Weirdly, the crystal is spherical, and by looking at how fast it turns, we can find out how ‘gloopy’ the liquid is, or, if we know how gloopy it is, we can find out what temperature it is at!  It’s important do to this because how do you measure ‘gloopiness’ inside a cell, or on tiny volumes of liquid? We can figure out how gloopy a bucket of liquid is, but sometimes we only have a tiny sample to work with, such as material actually inside a cell!

My Typical Day

Preparing crystal samples, aligning them inside a laser, recording and analysing the data to see how they spin!

It sounds like a cliché, but there isn’t really a typical day for me!  I can be planning an experiment, or optimising the manufacture of the spherical crystals.  Quite a lot of my day is spent either analysing data, or looking for ways to improve the speed at which the crystals rotate.  Another aspect of my work is educating people of all ages about the work that we do in our labs, and explaining just how light can be so strange.  It’s a real thrill when you look at the data to see something that is brand new knowledge – sometimes it confirms a model that you proposed for a certain phenomenon, othertimes it shows you a better model is needed.  It’s all a step towards finding what you are actually looking for!

What I'd do with the money

Fund visits to take my science into local schools and community groups

I love science, and I love the work that I do. I want to share that with everyone and show just what science has done for us in this world.  Part of what makes science so fascinating is how weird some things are, and I would leap at the chance to explain these to people who typically don’t come across these  wonderful phenomena.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Inquiring, Persistent, Tall

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Impossible to say – for work in the lab, rock music really helps get the work done!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Hard to say…Kayacking down the Orange River in South Africa was really amazing!

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

To make a living doing whatever science I want to do, to play in a stadium-filling band, and to have more time!

What did you want to be after you left school?

When I was five years old, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster(!), but as a teenager I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I just wanted to do what I enjoy doing – and here I am doing it!

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Yes…what do you want to know? The time I blew up a reflux condenser in Chemistry? The time I threw a drum across the school hall?… the list goes on!

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

Made a discovery during my PhD that had me jumping out of my seat, itching to tell someone about it, but realising that it was 3am and since everyone sensible was in bed, there was no-one around to tell!

Tell us a joke.

What type of bear dissolves in water? A polar bear…