MRC Prion Unit and Institute of Prion diseases


Meet the Staff: Michael Farmer

30 November 2023

In our latest in a series of staff interviews, Michael Farmer spoke with us about his journey to working in science, the variety of jobs he carries out here and his hobbies outside of the Prion Unit.

M. Farmer

Job Title: Senior Research Technician

By George Thirlway, Research Technician and Coordinator for Public Engagement

George: What is your main role here at the Prion Unit?
Michael: I am a senior research technician for programme 8, working with Dr Malin Sandberg and the kinetics team.

George: How long have you worked here?
Michael: It has been 18 years as of October 2023.

George: Did you attend university and if so what did you study?
Michael: I went to Queen Mary and Westfield College, which is now Queen Mary University of London. I studied pure genetics with a gap year.

George: Wow, I don’t think I’ve come across pure genetics as an undergraduate degree option before, how was that?
Michael: It was really interesting, the degree consisted of eight self-chosen modules each year and this eventually determined the final degree title. So in the end I guess I really liked the genetics focused topics.

George: Very interesting. What was your previous job before this and how did you get from there to here?
Michael: I was a carpet salesman and fitter, working for the family business, in my early teenage years right up until I finished University.
After that I did about two years of a PhD. During the first year, I designed and ran one of the largest drosophila lifespan experiments at the time, consisting of counting over 150,000 flies as they died. Not to mention having to individually sex and separate them! I even bespoke built them mini-hotels housing ~500 flies. I had manipulated a gene in the Sirtuin family (Sir2) shown to control longevity. Long story short the gene had somehow excised itself while the marker for that gene (red eyes) had not. By the time I had figured out what happened my supervisor essentially gave up on the project and I was forced out of the PhD. I then took a year out to reflect on ‘life’ and decided to convert an abandoned warehouse my family owned into a place to live. Plumbing, electrical wiring, building a few walls it was a good distraction from anything cerebral and allowed me to recover. But my passion for science was still present and in my first interview I somehow convinced then Dr Giovanna Mallucci to take a chance on me and I’ve been here ever since.

George: That is quite a journey! So what does a typical day or week look like for you now?
Michael: It can be quite varied depending on the immediate research needs, but typically I am responsible for maintaining/creating our in-house Alzheimer and Tau animal models. Which generally involves genetic screening and sample processing. Alongside this, as the unit’s behavioural expert, I manage the design, planning and running of multiple behavioural experiments.

George: What would you say is your favourite thing about working at the Prion Unit?
Michael: It’s the people I have worked with and for. There are so many brilliant and talented people here. When I was first starting out Giovanna did not set boundaries on what I could do and encouraged me to push myself and to try everything. Over the years I have been able to work on a lot of varied research projects from prion therapeutics, biomarker verification, drug and assay development to complex animal behavior research. So yeah, the combination of cutting-edge research with brilliant colleagues.

Cute story: When I first started working at the Prion Unit I sat opposite Prof. Elizabeth Fisher who had established the first ‘humanised’ mouse model of Down syndrome. Completely coincidently, I had kept newspaper cutouts from when the research was first published in the early 90’s; I wasn’t quite brave enough to ask for an autograph at the time, but we did have a good reminisce. My first but not last ‘science celebrity’ meeting.

George: Right, so when was the first time you learnt what a prion was?
Michael: At university around 1998. There was a module run by Dr John Viles entirely on prions, with a specific focus on obtaining NMR images of the Prion protein. From what I recall it was described as notoriously “wiggly”. The idea that a protein can ‘replicate’ without genetic machinery was fascinating and really stuck with me.

George: So why did you choose to work with/about prions?
Michael: Precisely for the above reasons; as a geneticist by trade prions are fascinating! I find it inspirational to work in this field. I have always been interested in the genetics of ‘life’, how it is controlled, regulated and what ‘life’ really is. I have made a partial switch towards Alzheimer’s research in addition to the ongoing prion work. For me studying prions or any prion-like disease causing agents is a fusion of amazing purpose and simply ‘cool’, for lack of a better term.

George: I know exactly what you mean. Do you have any favourite memories of specific days working here?
Michael: I remember the first eureka moment. We were targeting the hippocampus of RML prion infected mice with lentivirus, with the aim of depleting the harmless native PrP and removing the substrate by which prions replicate. We saw a reversal of prion damage in the areas targeted with the lentivirus. A proof of principle that this could be a potential therapeutic intervention. This also led to my first scientific publication.

George: What is something that surprised you about working at the Unit?
Michael: The level of skill and expertise gathered together under one roof, all using cutting edge tech to expand the field.

George: Agreed. So when you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? And how close do you think it is to your current role?
Michael: Well when I was about 7 years old I told my parents that I was going to be a geneticist! I was reading a lot of Michael Crichton and loved all kinds of animal biology/nature books, wondering what life was and always had a yearning to try and understand it.

George: Well then with that in mind if you weren't doing this job, money no object, what would you be doing instead?
Michael: Probably this job to be honest! My other main passion is astrophysics, so maybe something in that field with a side hobby in quantum mechanics.

George: Do you have a favourite science fact you’d like to share?
Michael: 80% of all facts are made up on the spot! Joking aside, I always loved the proof of evolution in action, in our lab. Demonstrated by Emmanuel Asante and Simon Mead whereby they showed the genetic ‘evolution’ to a neuroprotective mutation of the Prion protein in the Fore and surrounding tribes shortly after the kuru epidemic in Papua New Guinea.

George: What are some of your interests or hobbies outside of science?
Michael: As I said astrophysics, I enjoy gaming too. Especially virtual reality, I’m generally fascinated by all kinds of cutting-edge technology. And I spent a good 20 years practicing Kyokushinkai, a full contact ‘Knock-out’ martial arts, picking up a few continental trophies along the way.

George: What is your favourite place you have travelled to and what was the best food you had there?
Michael: Definitely Japan, it was super cool and everything was so delicious. If I had to pick one food type it would have to be the local breakfast food houses! Always delightful and incredibly cheap. 

George: Is there any particular media you’re into at the moment you would like to share?
Michael: VR gaming on my PS5 – just living in the virtual! Its also something I have thought about introducing into my behavior research. The ability to build worlds and novel paradigms to tease out neurodegeneration in animal models.

George: Is there anything else you want to tell us?
Michael: Don’t take life to seriously, have fun along the way!

Thank you to Michael for taking the time to share so much about himself and his role here at the MRC Prion Unit at UCL. We look forward to bringing you more insight into the great work we do here and the brilliant people behind it all.