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News > Updates from our ONs > Catching up with ON Andrew Steele - Class of 2003

Catching up with ON Andrew Steele - Class of 2003

It has been fascinating to catch-up with ON Andrew Steele following his TV appearances on the publication of his book Ageless: The new science of getting old without getting older.
30 Jul 2021
Written by Caroline Cheal
United Kingdom
Updates from our ONs
Andrew Steele, Class of 2003
Andrew Steele, Class of 2003

After a PhD in physics from the University of Oxford, Class of 2003 ON Andrew Steele decided that ageing was the single most important scientific challenge of our time and switched fields to computational biology. He has worked at the Francis Crick Institute, using machine learning to decode our DNA, and is now a freelance science writer.

Andrew's News - July 2021

My mum tells me I’ve wanted to be a physicist since the age of seven, inspired, like so many young scientists-to-be, by the beauty and incomprehensible vastness of the night sky. So while it would probably delight seven-year-old me to hear that I did become a scientist, and I’ve just published my first popular science book…he might be a bit surprised to know that it’s about ageing biology.

It’s called Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old, and it’s about what I believe is the most important scientific and ethical challenge of our time: developing medicines to slow down or even reverse the ageing process. This might sound a bit strange or sci-fi, until you view ageing as a biologist—a process which is the single biggest cause of diseases like cancer or dementia which, as all of us know, occur far more frequently in older people.

After childhood, your odds of death double every eight years or so. This starts out innocuously enough (a random Adams’ student probably has something like a 1 in 5000 chance of not making their next birthday), but eventually gets very big, very quickly (if we’re lucky enough to make it to 90, and science doesn’t do anything about ageing in the intervening time, our annual odds of death will be a rather more sobering 1 in 6).

My journey from aspiring astronomer to biology author was thanks in no small part to what I learned at Adams’. I’m hugely indebted to many teachers, but particularly (and perhaps obviously given my chosen career) the science, maths and English departments. I have fond memories of physics practicals, maths puzzles, and playing the eponymous Doctor Faustus in the now-demolished Playing Place.

During my A-levels I was still passionate about physics, and decided to study it at Oxford. It was a very challenging course, but an incredible introduction to the subject. After that, I decided to study for a DPhil (what Oxford, rather archaically, continues to call its PhDs) in condensed matter, focussing specifically on magnetism and superconductivity. My work involved taking tiny samples of magnetic and superconducting materials newly created by chemists to particle accelerators to bombard them with particles called muons, by which rather roundabout route you can determine what’s going on inside those materials.

As I approached the end of my studies, like many students, I was wondering what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to maximise the positive impact I could have with my career and, fortunately, it was around this time that I started reading about ageing biology.

In the end, I changed career because of a graph: in fact, the graph I described earlier, which shows how likely you are to die based on how old you are. The implication of this graph could be terrifying—but, as a scientist, you’re forced to wonder: if we could understand the processes behind this sudden increase in risk of death and disease, perhaps we could do something about it. I decided to become a ‘computational biologist’: using the maths and programming skills acquired during my physics education to analyse biological data.

I started with a postdoc at King’s College London, working with millimetre-long nematode worms (which, unlikely though it may sound, are a staple of ageing research). Shortly afterwards, I got a job with Cancer Research UK, using machine learning on both DNA sequencing data, and to make predictions based on NHS patients’ electronic medical records. My CRUK lab was then moved to a far shinier building, the newly constructed Francis Crick Institute, which is nestled behind the British Library and next to St Pancras Station. (It’s quite a piece of architecture, and well worth checking out if you’re in the area.)

During my DPhil studies and as a researcher, I started to spend more time talking about science as well as doing it. This included lectures, writing, and even a few stints on TV—the highlight of which was definitely a week in China filming an episode of the documentary series Impossible Engineering about FAST, the world’s largest radio telescope.

I also started to become more involved in political campaigning. Another realisation I’d come to at the end of my DPhil was just how little we invest in scientific research. (The shocking statistic which kicked that off was that cancer kills about a third of us, and yet we spend about £3 per person per year in the UK on cancer research. You can find more similarly depressing numbers at scienceogram.org.) I ended up organising events and protests, writing reports, and meeting with politicians and policymakers. I’ve even done a couple of stand-up sets about science funding at the Hammersmith Apollo as part of Robin Ince and Brian Cox’s Christmas variety shows. I promise they were funnier than that summary makes them sound.

All this experience convinced me that I needed to write a book about ageing biology. Effecting changes in policy is hard, and writing a book would allow me to set out a well-referenced case, and hopefully raise the profile of this vital field of study. I ended up writing for about two years almost full-time—it turns out that writing a book is a lot of work!—and the project finally came to fruition on December 24th 2020 in the UK, and March 23rd this year in the US. It’s also currently being translated into ten languages, so hopefully I can spread the word internationally too.

It’s been a strange experience giving interviews on multiple countries’ national TV from our locked-down living room—it’s quite hard to believe that you’re going out to millions of people via a mirrorless camera, with your wife tripling as stylist, producer and tech support—but it’s been an amazing one too, and I’ve been very privileged to have the opportunity to tell so many people about something I believe in so passionately. Though I am still holding out some hope of a US book tour when the paperback is released next year…

If you’d like to get hold of a copy of my book, you can do so at ageless.link and, if you want to follow this particular Old Novaportan’s fortunes, I’m @statto on Twitter, @andrewjsteele on Instagram, and at www.facebook.com/ DrAndrewSteele and www.youtube.com/DrAndrewSteele.

And I very much hope some of the students reading this might also read Ageless, and be inspired into a career in which they really could change the world.

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