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Dr Thomas Blacker

Dr Thomas Blacker

Senior Research Fellow

Structural & Molecular Biology

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Jul 2014

Research summary

My research aims to develop and apply advanced fluorescence spectroscopy and imaging techniques to study the metabolic processes involved in health and disease.

The classic biochemical approaches upon which our knowledge of metabolism has been developed are generally insensitive to the spatial organisation of cells and tissues, which is known to play a significant role in their function. Furthermore, they inevitably involve the destruction of samples, making it impossible to follow temporal changes. Post-extraction degradation of metabolites will affect precision, limiting their quantitative application. There is thus a pressing need for the establishment of techniques for probing metabolic phenomena in situ.

My goal is to achieve this by exploiting time- and polarisation-resolved fluorescence. These methods allow nanoscale processes, including conformational transitions, intramolecular interactions, and reaction-diffusion dynamics, to be investigated in samples ranging in size from isolated molecules and proteins to whole intact tissues. These techniques can be utilised to their full quantitative potential by combining expertise in both the physical and life science aspects of both the problem and the methodology. To this end, I study the underlying photophysics of biologically relevant fluorophores and apply these findings in the study of biochemical processes in living tissues using fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM).

This approach identified the importance of the redox cofactor NADPH in controlling the intrinsic fluorescence decay characteristics of living tissues, a finding subsequently applied in interdisciplinary collaborations, both local and international, to investigate the contrasting antioxidant roles of different cell types in complex tissues. Ongoing work is attempting to identify the excited state mechanisms governing Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) between fluorescent proteins in order to allow its correct and accurate application in live cells and advance the ongoing effort to establish quantitative understanding of biological systems.

Teaching summary

I awarded Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) status in 2020. This recognised an ongoing commitment to developing my teaching practice in an evidence-based and research-led manner and, in particular, my efforts to improve engagement in experimental courses for small interdisciplinary postgraduate groups that I designed and taught through CoMPLEX.

I have directly overseen multiple undergraduate and taught-postgraduate research projects through courses including MRes Modelling Biological Complexity, MSci Physics, BSc Biomedical Science and MSc Neuroscience. I was also a demonstrator and marker in the second-year Physics labs at UCL from 2011 to 2019 and have provided problem-solving tutorials for PHAS0005 (Waves, Optics and Acoustics).

At the opposite end of the academic spectrum, I have led practical sessions on FLIM to groups of delegates from two international workshops on optical microscopy techniques held at UCL.

Education

UCL Arena
Other qualification, Recognised by the HEA as a Fellow |
University College London
Doctorate, Doctor of Philosophy | 2013
University College London
Other higher degree, Master of Research | 2009
University of Exeter
Other higher degree, Master of Physics | 2008

Biography

I studied Physics at the University of Exeter, with a year abroad at the University of Sydney, graduating in 2008. I then joined the Centre for Mathematics and Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology (CoMPLEX) at UCL, completing my PhD "Monitoring cell metabolism with NAD(P)H fluorescence lifetime imaging" (co-supervised by Michael Duchen and Angus Bain) in 2013.

I was awarded the Prof. Anne Warner Doctoral Fellowship by CoMPLEX, providing a year's opportunity to further develop my PhD work and apply for further funding. This resulted in co-investigator roles on the BBSRC grants "In Situ Quantification Of Metabolic Function Using Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging" (2014-2017, BB/L020874/1) and "New Approaches To Studying Redox Metabolism Using Time-Resolved NAD(P)H Fluorescence And Anisotropy" (2017-2020, BB/P018726/1).

My research is now supported by a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship "Autofluorescence across scales: an integrated understanding of redox cofactors as intrinsic probes of metabolic state" (2022-2025, BB/W009242/1).

Publications