Kathryn McMahon

Email me if you'd like me to come and give a talk and your school is in West Yorkshire.

Favourite Thing: 3D Microscopy! We have a special microscope that you can use to make 3D images of cells, and the pictures that you get from it are amazing. I love being able to zoom in and look at such tiny things in detail, you never know what you will find. We can also take videos of living cells so you can watch things as they happen live.



Chosen Hill School 1990-1997, Cardiff University 1997-2001, University College London 2003-2007.


A degree in Genetics and a PhD in Molecular Haematology (the science of blood cell development)

Work History:

BHS cafe, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Oxford University, The University of Nottingham, The University of Leeds

Current Job:

I am a scientist working at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine


The University of Leeds

Me and my work

I work on how cancers use blood vessels to help them grow and spread.

Your body needs oxygen. Oxygen is taken to every part of your body by red blood cells in tubes called blood vessels. Most of the big blood vessels in your body will have formed before you were born, but smaller ones can grow when you’re an adult. I am interested in how these smaller vessels grow and whether I can control how they grow.

The reason I’m so interested in blood vessels is that they are very important in cancer. Cancer cells can be much greedier and faster growing than the rest of the cells of the body. They need lots of oxygen and to get this they need blood vessels to deliver the blood to them. We now think that cancer cells encourage vessels to grow and create their own network of vessels. They then use these vessels to get enough oxygen and also, sometimes, as a way of spreading around the body.

I am trying to find ways to stop the cancers from controlling blood vessels so that we can starve the cancers and also stop them from spreading. To look at the blood vessels, our lab has found a way to grow them in dishes. We can look at how the vessels branch and grow and even look at which genes they might need to grow. We can turn genes on or off and see what happens to blood vessels. I use microscopes to look at the vessels and fluorescent paints (antibodies) to investigate the cells in lots of detail.

I also look at cancer tumours taken from patients to see how the blood vessels grow in and around cancer cells.

My Typical Day

My typical day involves spending some time feeding my cells, doing some pipetting at my bench and sitting in the dark, using the microscope.

My day normally starts with catching up on my emails – a lot of my experiments involve working with many different people so I send a lot of emails and get everything organised. I then go and get a cup of tea, as it helps to get my brain going (also, I love talking to my colleagues about last nights TV!). Then its into the laboratory. I spend a lot of time looking after my cells – they’re almost like pets. You have to feed them and tend to them and we have to be especially careful to keep them sterile. This means we have to use a special, sterile box whenever we do anything to them.

When I’m not working on my cells, I might be doing experiments at my laboratory bench. I am a molecular biologist, which means that most of my experiments involve moving very small amounts of liquid around (one thousandth of a millilitre!). We have special instruments (pipettes) to do this. I might set up an experiment to make lots of copies a piece of DNA so that I can look at it in more detail, or I might take some of my cells and stain them using fluorescent labels so that I can look at them under the microscope.

On days when I am using the microscope, I might be sitting in a dark room for about 6 hours. This is because we can only see our fluorescent labels in the dark. I make 3D images of cells and blood vessels, which is pretty fun, so sitting in the dark doesn’t seem so bad!

At the end of day, I’ll probably write some more emails and organise what I’m going to do the next day.

What I'd do with the money

I’d buy some decent equipment so that I could become my own roving mini-lab, and take my science to the local schools.

I work in quite a poor part of Leeds where the local schools don’t have fancy labs or access to the materials they need for experiments. I think its really important to visit these schools to show the local kids what we do and also how exiting science can be and the sort of things it can lead to career-wise.

If I won, I would use the money to buy some equipment (e.g. some electric tanks and a light to analyse DNA with) and some materials that I could use on school trips, to create my own mini-lab.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Curious, fun, chatty

Who is your favourite singer or band?

My favourite singer is David Bowie, my favourite band is Girls Aloud.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I’ve been to some amazing places, but the most fun thing I’ve done has been to have my daughter. Its also the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done though!

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

1. Be given lots of money so that I could do any science I wanted. 2. Have my own enormous greenhouse and veg patch (and no mortgage). 3. To be a presenter on the Antiques Roadshow.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist – I was definitely inspired by Jurassic Park.

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Not really, I only ever had two detentions.

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

Publish my work – its amazing knowing that scientists all over the world are reading about what you’ve done.

Tell us a joke.

Two fish are in a tank. One looks at the other and says “You man the guns, I’ll drive”.

Other stuff

Work photos:

Sitting at my bench, preparing my cells for the microscope using my pipette


More pipetting – this time I’m looking after my cells in our sterile hood


Sitting in the dark with my favourite microscope


The sort of pictures I take: Blood vessels (red) growing on top of a layer of skin cells


A close up of a vessel branch


Some blood vessels cells growing outside of a vessel. I’ve labelled them so that I can see the nucleus (blue), the main body of the cell (red) and a protein I’m interested in (light blue)


A very thin slice of a breast cancer showing the blood vessels (brown) growing in between the tumour cells (blue).