Katy Brown

Favourite Thing: Finding a new virus which we didn’t know about before.



University of Nottingham, 2010 – present, University of Edinburgh 2008 – 2009, Imperial College London 2004 – 2008


MSc Genetics, BSc Biology, 4 A-levels, 1 AS-level, 10 GCSEs.

Work History:

Probably about 50 places, as well as lab work I’ve stood on a roundabout counting how many cars go past, weighed out hundreds of slices of ham and called people selling a plumbing catalogue.

Current Job:

PhD Student


University of Nottingham

Me and my work

I use computers to find ancient viruses which infected primates millions of years ago.

I study a group of viruses called retroviruses.  HIV is in this group and so are lots of other viruses which infect humans and animals.

Sometimes, retroviruses get into DNA of egg or sperm cells.   If one of these cells is used to make a baby, the baby has the virus in every one of its cells, and will pass the virus on to its own children.  If the virus is not too serious and the animal survives, the virus can spread until every animal of that species has the virus in every cell.

Every time the virus is copied, there are some mistakes, until eventually the virus is too damaged to be infectious.  This means the virus is mostly harmless but you can still see it, even millions of years later.

I look at the DNA of modern primates – lemurs, bushbabies, monkeys, apes and humans – to find these old, damaged viruses.  By looking at the DNA I can figure out what type of virus it was and how long ago it was around.  Lots of DNA sequences for different animals are available online, and I use a computer program which sorts through these sequences looking for retroviruses.

My Typical Day

I download data, write and run computer programs and drink coffee.

I usually work at my computer, although I also do some lab work.  My work is different every day.  I download huge amounts of DNA sequences from the internet and sort them out so my programs can understand them.   Then I run programs on the data to look for retroviruses.  This gives me big tables telling me the locations of virus-like bits of DNA and I write programs to find things out about them – what type of virus they are, how old they are and how they are related to modern viruses.   I do all this in between lots of breaks to drink coffee, eat and chat!

What I'd do with the money

I would give the money to a charity which teaches kids in Africa to avoid HIV using football

I would donate the money to the charity Tackle Africa ( which coaches kids in Africa in football while teaching them about how to avoid HIV.  HIV is a huge problem in southern Africa, affecting up to 50% of people in some countries, so educating children about the disease is very important.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Overly talkative computer geek (OK, that’s four words)

Who is your favourite singer or band?


What's your favourite food?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

I spent nine weeks in South Africa looking after (surprisingly vicious!) penguins,

What did you want to be after you left school?

A doctor, but luckily I didn’t get in!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Nope, I was a big geek.

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I found a new virus in bushbabies which no-one knew about before.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I fell into it by chance, but now I love it!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

One of those people who you phone when you can’t work your computer.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

I’d like a nice flat in London, another one in New York and three more years to finish my PhD!

Tell us a joke.

If a pizza has a radius ‘z’ and a depth ‘a’ that pizza’s volume can be defined Pi*z*z*a.

Other stuff

Work photos: