Stephen Wallace

MChem. Medicinal and Biological Chemistry with Industrial Experience 2008

Your Time at the University

Goodness, why Edinburgh… To tell you the truth, Edinburgh was my second choice. However, I was convinced (I can’t remember exactly why…) to visit the School before making my final decision. My mum still recalls to this day “that really nice lady who showed us around”, her enthusiasm for science and the inordinate amount of red pen on the essays in her office! I was convinced I was going to be a physical chemist at the time (I’m now a chemical biologist), but even I was struck by her tenacious passion for organic chemistry. Little did I know that Dr, now Professor, Alison Hulme would be my first lecturer, dissertation supervisor, and eventual colleague when I joined the faculty of the university 14 years later. Despite growing up in Scotland, this was also my first visit to the city of Edinburgh. Needless to say, I fell head-over-heels for the city and changed my UCAS form the next day!

Stephen Wallace

I don’t remember too much of the content of the degree course – all I can recall is it being demanding, and being baffled by quantum mechanics (isn’t everyone?). However, my lasting memory of the department was its overwhelming sense of community. Everyone always seemed to have time for everyone else. Teachers were really engaged, classes were stimulating, and everyone was passionate about their research. Whenever I meet old classmates now, we always end up talking about the Chemistry Ball and how much fun it was (I won’t go into any more detail).

Your Experiences Since Leaving the University

This is going to take a while… Although I now live and work in Edinburgh, my scientific career since graduating from the department has taken me around the world. I first moved to Oxford to do a PhD in organic chemistry, where I worked on the total synthesis of a family of poison dart frog toxins with Prof. Martin Smith. I then moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge to work on unnatural amino acid incorporation and bioorthogonal chemistry with Prof. Jason Chin. This was my first taste of biological research and I became fascinated by how small molecules could be designed, synthesised and then co-translationally incorporated into proteins in cells.

I then received a Marie Curie Fellowship, which I took to Prof. Emily Balskus’s lab at Harvard University. Emily had just started her own lab 2 years earlier and I was intrigued by the idea of doing the same myself one day. During my time in Boston, I worked on interfacing chemical catalysts with engineered metabolic pathways in E. coli. This was my first experience using genetically-programmed microbes for chemical synthesis, which still fascinates me now and remains the focus of my group’s research in Edinburgh. During this time, I also worked with Prof. Kristala Prather at MIT, who was kind/brave enough to teach me how to engineer the genome of bacterial cells. I returned to the UK in 2016 to work with Prof. Steve Ley at Cambridge University before returning to Edinburgh as a Lecturer in Biotechnology in the School of Biological Sciences in 2017.

I am currently a visiting associate at the California Institute of Technology where I’m working with Prof. Frances Arnold, the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. I’ll return to Edinburgh in August 2019 to continue my independent research on the use of microorganisms for renewable chemical synthesis.

Alumni Wisdom

Being a researcher is the best job in the world.  However, I often meet people who are put-off pursuing a career in research because it is seen as “too demanding”.

It’s not hard work if you love science. In fact, it’s easy. Being a fireman is hard work.