UCL Faculty of Life Sciences


GET TO KNOW THE EXPERT: Andrea Townsend-Nicholson

28 October 2020

Andrea Townsend-Nicholson is Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology within the Division of Biosciences at UCL. Her research covers understanding how cells interpret extracellular signals and turn this information into intracellular responses.

Andrea's focus is on understanding the molecular basis of health and disease and the role of cell surface receptors in these processes. Andrea also investigates the development of new technologies to gain a more refined understanding of existing cellular systems for therapeutic benefit.  She has published a significant number of papers on her research.

The avatar used by Professor Andrea Townsend-Nicholson in her research

Andrea has recently stepped down after over ten years as the Head of Teaching for Molecular Biosciences for undergraduate programmes in Biochemistry, Biotechnology and Molecular Biology to focus on the development and delivery of novel technology to enhance student learning.

She is especially interested in increasing the use of high performance computing as part of a taught programme of study.  In addition, Andrea is an academic and personal tutor for supervising final year undergraduate literature and laboratory-based research projects and MRes.

In 2019, Professor Andrea Townsend  took a virtual human avatar to the Houses of Parliament to meet a cross party group of MPs, and Lords. The purpose of this visit was to explain to Parliamentarians how the virtual human uses digital evidence at multiple scales – from the ‘letters’ in genetic code to medical imaging of the heart – to seek real improvements to healthcare by delivering truly personalised medicine.  Andrea and her team demonstrated how the most fundamental aspects of living processes and cells including tissues and organs are being reproduced by scientists using supercomputers.

We caught up with Andrea recently to ask her our top questions, and this is what she told us.

Question 1: What inspired you to specialise in molecular biology? 

Andrea: I did a research project in a university lab for my A level in Biology. I was looking at jumping genes (transposons) in E. coli and it was great fun. I thought molecular biology was absolutely fantastic and I wanted to study it at university. My undergraduate degree was in Molecular Biology and Molecular Genetics. The programme had only been running for one year before I started so it was all very new and very exciting and an emergent area of biological research.

During my degree, I was working as a part-time technician in the lab I’d started in so I was able to get a lot of technical experience which was hugely helpful during my PhD in France. I had been accepted into medicine and was supposed to go back to the University of Toronto for this after I’d completed two years of a postdoc in Australia, but after 5 years of deferring my medical studies and carrying on with my postdoctoral work, it was pretty clear that molecular biology and I were meant to be - so I dropped out of medicine.

Question 2: Can you tell us what interests you so much about new technologies – and the part this plays in your research?

Andrea: New technologies are game-changers. They let you do things better, faster, at a larger scale and often in an automated way. All of these are things that let you dedicate more of your time and effort to work that can’t be approached like this. One of the interesting aspects I’ve found with learning new technologies is that it broadens my thinking and changes the way I approach things. I’ve never found any disadvantage to adopting a new technology and have derived huge benefits from keeping an open mind and adopting them wherever possible in my teaching and in my research.

Question 3: Your trip to the Houses of Parliament last year sounds interesting. Can you explain how you communicated the role novel technologies have in helping deliver personalised medicine?

Andrea: The dancing skeleton was really helpful in explaining that a supercomputer can take three pieces of data (a whole body X-ray, gait analysis and bone mineral density) and use this information to design a personalised insole for a shoe that will reduce impact on the wearer’s weak bones and prevent fractures. This is an example of something that can help improve our quality of life as we age. Showing them the skeleton made it easy to move to other kinds of data that can be used to deliver personalised medicine, up to and including building a digital twin for every person to understand how the entire person will be impacted by a specific treatment.

Question 4: You took your virtual human avatar to meet MPs – what response did you get?  

Andrea: Everybody wanted to know when they could have their own Virtual Human!  The idea of improving your health and wellbeing by using your own data to predict the best treatments, fitness and exercise programmes was hugely appealing to everybody I spoke with. What they hadn’t appreciated, and I was able to explain to them, is that a lot of this technology is available now but isn’t widely available because it needs to be licensed and establishing a safe and rapid regulatory pathway for this is something that MPs can help with. They were intrigued by the idea that they also have an important role to play in building the Virtual Human!

A graphic showing the upper respiratory airways during inhalation of a drug.
Image above: A graphic showing the upper respiratory airways during inhalation of a drug.


Question 5: What do you most looking forward to as a new term starts and you begin teaching your new undergraduate students?

Andrea: As a new term starts, I looking forward to catching up with people I know and meeting new people. It’s always special meeting the new first year students. Over the years, I’ve noticed that each cohort seems to have a distinct personality of its own and I’m always amazed by how different this can be from one year to the next. I’m quite interested to see what our new undergraduate students will be like this year. I’m curious to know where they come from, what they’re interested in achieving, where they’d like to go next and how we can help them.

Question 6: Can you explain what a final year undergraduate student, who is going to be studying literature and laboratory-based research projects, has to look forward to this year?

Andrea: This is a hugely exciting time! Our third year students are going to have an unprecedented, albeit unanticipated, opportunity to integrate experimental and computational work and acquire data science skills – they will be right at the dawn of the research of the future! I have also been discovering that digital platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom are fantastic for bringing our students more closely into the UCL research community and for allowing them to start to build the networks that will underpin their career interests.

My face to face teaching is focused on hands-on laboratory skills and providing community-building,  enrichment and key skills opportunities, so my final year undergraduate students are able to meet me both online and in person and are getting the benefits of both ways of working together. 

Question 7: What’s your next big challenge in terms of your research?

Andrea: A decade ago, we identified the specific protein target of the Thin Pill – a chemical gastric band that would reduce caloric intake and provide another tool for people to use in managing their weight. We are now at the point where the computational methods are sufficiently powerful that we can start to design a safe, highly effective Thin Pill. That’s at the molecular scale of the Virtual Human and a nice way of combining my interests in molecular biology and technology.

Question 8: What’s the next big adventure for your virtual human avatar – and have you given them a name!?

Andrea: My virtual human avatar is called Virtual Andrea. She has spent much of lockdown binge-watching Netflix on my sofa while I’ve been working, which isn’t really the optimal mapping between a real person and their digital twin. Her data have been updated as a result and she is now a much better reflection of real world Andrea’s health, fitness and activity. Virtual Andrea is currently helping me write a research grant and on December 10, she and I will be running a three hour Free Choice SSC Taster session for UCL’s first year medical students on how to start building their own Virtual Humans. 

Question 9: What motivates you at the start of each day?

Andrea: The unknown possibilities that exist out there. I start out my day with a rough idea of what I’ll be doing and when, but often I’ll find that the way I get there isn’t quite what I’d expected and sometimes something new and interesting will pop up and I end up spending time on that. 

Question 10: Is there any final thought you’d like to share?

Andrea: My best collaborations and my best research have come from opportunities that came out of nowhere and had to be accepted on the spot or missed and I’ve never regretted trying something to see if it would work out well. I like the potential of a new day – at least after I’ve had my first coffee!

Further information:

Professor Andrea Townsend-Nicholson staff profile