Brainwaves: Interview with Dr Giles Yeo
Interviewing eminent neuroendocinologists about their work, passions and tips for budding scientists.
Interview by Agnes Becker, BSN Communications Officer.
Giles Yeo is based at the University of Cambridge Institute of Metabolic Science. He has 20 years’ experience studying the genetics of obesity & brain control of food intake. He obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1998 and his research currently focuses on the influence of genes on feeding behaviour & body-weight. Giles is also a graduate tutor and fellow of Wolfson College, and Honorary President of the British Dietetic Association. In addition to academia, Giles is a broadcaster and author, presenting science documentaries for the BBC’s ‘Horizon’ & ‘Trust Me I’m A Doctor’. His first book ‘Gene Eating: The story of human appetite’ was published in December 2018. Giles was awarded an MBE for services to for services to ‘Research, Communication and Engagement’ in the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honours List.
In this interview, Giles talks about how luck and serendipity brought him to neuroendocrinology, how his communication work helps shape his research, the need to find your niche and how he hopes his work will contribute to destigmatising body weight. And his advice for aspiring neuroendocrinologists? Don't p*ss anyone off unneccessarily!
Firstly, congratulations on your MBE! How does it feel to have your work recognised in this way?
I feel honoured by it because it recognises all the aspects of what I do - the research, communication and engagement with younger scientists and the wider public about destigmatising body weight.
Tell us about your research and why it excites you
I am a molecular geneticist by training and I study the genetics of body weight – how our brain influences our feeding behaviour. Hopefully this excites everybody! Everyone has a body weight and most people are interested in it. The downside is that most people have an opinion on weight and are happy to let you know it.
How do you form new research ideas? What inspires you most?
Inspiration has come from different areas as my career and the field has changed over time. Initially, working in severe obesity I read a lot of literature to find out which gene had been screened but as the technology began to change and we could screen all the genes in lots of people, the challenge was which gene linked to the phenotype we were researching (body weight in my case) and that required more networking and collaboration. As I started doing more science communication work I have found learning about perspectives from people outside of academic has given me inspiration and new ways of thinking about my work.
Why is science communication work important to you?
Some of my colleagues don’t understand it – they see it as a waste of time. But that assumes every minute I am doing communication work means a minute taken away from writing research papers and grants. It does not take into account that doing the communication work actually makes me a better scientist. Secondly, I feel communication is part of the job. Few people in the UK will read my scientific papers – we get excited when 100 people cite our paper - but the majority fund my work through taxation so I feel as academics we have a duty to tell people how we are using their money. In the current environment, I also feel academics and scientists have a duty to push back against the anti-intellectualism in the UK today.
What has been your most important or surprising scientific finding?
The most important finding within the field - and in which I played a part - is the fact that when we study the genetics of body weight we are studying the genetics of food intake. It may seem obvious but it has taken two decades to understand how this works in terms of genetics. From severe obesity where you have big deletions and disruption in genes to common body weight, the reasons we are different sizes in the environment we live in is because each of us behaves differently around food and the genetics now backs this up. If we want to fix obesity we need to fix food intake. How we tackle the reasons why people eat too much is where the interesting biology lies.
A good example of different food intake behaviours is the Monday morning meeting example. Someone puts a plate of cookies on the table and four different behaviours emerge. The first person will pick up and eat the cookie as soon as they are on the table. The second person will see the cookie and want to eat it but won’t – they spend the rest of the meeting thinking about the cookie and nothing else. The third person doesn’t even notice the cookies are there. The fourth person eats the cookie without even realising they have eaten it. As all the people are around the same table, we assume they are all of about the same level of education and background and yet you still get all these different behaviours.
If we back out and take the plate of cookies as our food environment there will be some people who feel hungrier, there are some people who feel less full, some people who have no interest in food at all and just see food as fuel and can eat the same thing every day, there are people who eat when stressed, there are people who don’t eat when stressed, there are people who eat for reward and this is all determined by genetics and your environment.
Describe a typical (pre-COVID19) day
I traveled a lot – easily 1-2 days a week. On a Cambridge day, I would get up and cycle to work. I’d shower and coffee at work. I don’t do pipetting etc. anymore but I’d have meetings with my team, eat lunch and then cycle back home. If were travelling then I’d be flying a lot and meeting people.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
Hugely. We were lucky that we had some data sets that needed analysing so we could do some data analysis and bioinformatics over lockdown. It has slowed down the lab side of things and we are trying to get back to normal now. Everything went into deep freeze for four months and two key grants were put on pause so the challenge will be how we can make up those four months. We hope the funding bodies will be understanding when they review progress. Unfortunately, things are going to get tough in terms of funding in the coming months and those worst affected will be the early career researchers. The BSN is doing what they can to support early career researchers during this difficult time.
What methods does your lab specialise in?
Genomics (looking at whole genome and exome screening of genes) and transcriptomics (looking at genetics of mRNA), specifically brain and single cell transcriptomics and analysis.
Who or what inspired you into neuroendocrinology?
I got into this field accidentally due to serendipity and luck. Without a good dosing of luck I would not be where I am today – I took opportunities when they came but a lot of it was being the right person at the right time.
I did my PhD on the molecular evolution of immune genes in the Japanese puffer fish. My PhD supervisor was Sydney Brenner who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 in for the introduction of C. elegans. Sydney worked with Francis Crick and coined the word ‘codon’ – I was his last PhD student at Cambridge. I soon realised studying the genetics of puffer fish wasn’t going to pay the mortgage and I had also met my then girlfriend, now wife, and I needed a job quickly! I went from door to door in my department and the second door I knocked on was Stephen O’Rahilly who was six months out from discovering Leptin and who needed a geneticist. Stephen knew about Sydney and so I happened to be the right person with the right set of skills at the right time. Over the two years I worked with Steve we had a run of success – this was in 1998 – and I have been in the field ever since. As we looked into genes that cause severe obesity we unraveled the pathway that controlled food intake. It just so happened that the pathway resided in the brain and because of this functioned through circulating peripheral cues – south of the neck talking to north of the neck, which is what neuroendocrinology is all about! I am where I am because of where the biology took me.
How has the BSN impacted your career?
Enormously. Early on in my career I began to realise that I had to leave pure genetics because I am not a clinician so couldn’t collect cohorts and phenotypes and therefore I’d always be a junior partner in any research projects. I needed to find something that would allow me to find my own funding and niche. I remember speaking to Gareth Leng about this and as my work was neuroendocrine research he advised me to join BSN – a small community of researchers where I could find my feet and my own space. So I joined and, as we do now, BSN were encouraging early career researchers and offering travel grants and cheap tickets to events etc. so I did all of these things. After a while Gareth encouraged me to join the committee – there was no representation from Cambridge – and I went on to become President in 2016 So the BSN helped me a lot especially in the early career stage and it’s really thanks to Gareth’s encouragement that I found my niche in this community. Finding my space and community has helped me survive in the broader environment of the University Institute of Metabolic Sciences – I complemented everyone else’s research but stood out enough for them to keep me and allow me to thrive. The BSN helped me crystallise my space within the University.
What do you most value about BSN’s official journal Journal of Neuroendocrinology?
It’s a community run journal – run by neuroendocrinologists for neuroendocrinologists – so it’s somewhere you can publish and like-minded people will be editing it. From the BSN perspective the Journal has given the Society financial stability and clout and has allowed us to support international neuroendocrinology. It’s great that it’s a small journal for our community but it has also played a big role in making sure that international neuroendocrinology has been able to thrive.
Outside of your area, which other established or up-and-coming areas do you find exciting?
From an obesity point of view there are three exciting things:
Firstly, the weaponisation of gut hormones as a therapy to treat obesity. Most gut hormones speak to the brain and are therefore part of a neuroendocrine system. There are about 20 hormones that help us feel full – that’s their natural role. At the moment the key drugs on the market to treat obesity are GLP1R agonists and gut hormone related. I study how our brain responds to these hormones but I’m not a gut hormone specialist so I am excited to see how the gut hormones can help treat obesity.
Secondly, it will be interesting to see how we can put someone on a personalised plan and diet based on their genes and biology.
Thirdly, there’s gene editing, for which Doudna and Chapentier just received the Nobel Prize in chemistry this year. If body weight is down to the genes – can we change our genes? Obviously, there are a lot of social and ethical concerns around this question but the technology to be able to change our genes is going to loom large over everything we do in the future. There’s whether we can do it, whether we should do it and when is it safe to do it?
Which book has had the biggest impact in your life?
Kit Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The books are about the colonisation of Mars from a red to a green to a blue Mars. He writes as if he is an historian and it is all about the ability of humans to adapt and save humanity. I have read it about 10 times and find it a very uplifting read.
What advice would you give an aspiring neuroendocrinologist?
Don’t p*ss anyone off unnecessarily and make yourself useful so you are more of a pain in the *ss to replace than to keep.
Or you can take my son’s advice (when he was 4 yrs old) when he was walking in Wales and getting fed up. My wife and I were powering ahead and suddenly we heard behind us “never give up, never look back” (I think he was quoting the power rangers).
What do you hope your academic legacy will be?
I would like to play a role in trying to remove the stigma from body weight. If I can get more people to understand that body weight is not a choice, that it’s a result of a huge deal of complexity in biology interacting with the environment so that people understand that while obesity is problem, the people suffering from it are not to blame. If I can manage to contribute a small step in destigmatise body weight in my career – both academic and communications – then that to me would be a successful career.