“Participation in the Falling Walls Lab was an excellent reminder that our work is relevant and appreciated abroad.”
On 8 November 2015, 100 young researchers and innovators from all around the world will compete again for the title “Falling Walls Young Innovator of the Year” at the Finale of the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin. John Woodland, researcher at the University of Cape Town, finished third in 2013 for the presentation of his research on "Breaking the Wall of Detecting Free Haem in Cells": the development of effective and more efficient antimalarial agents.
In 2014, he returned as a guest to the Falling Walls Lab in Berlin where Dinsa Sachan, a young science journalist from Delhi, India and one of the Falling Walls Science Fellows 2014, interviewed him about his Lab experience and his current research:
1. You finished third in last year's Falling Walls Lab contest. It's been a year. How has the third place finish helped you in your career?
As a young scientist in South Africa, it’s easy to feel isolated from the global scientific community – particularly in the early stages of a research career. Participation in the Falling Walls Lab was an excellent reminder that our work is relevant and appreciated abroad.
The whole Falling Walls experience continues to keep me motivated during the tough times and is also the seed of many interesting conversations. It has also made me aware of future research opportunities overseas – and I value the friends and contacts I have made.
2. What's latest in your work on fluorescence?
Everyone is aware of the urgent need for new, effective antimalarial agents. The rational design of these new drugs is a challenging task because we don’t understand the biology of the malaria parasite well enough. My latest focus is to understand better how our current antimalarials work by studying fluorescently-labelled versions of these molecules. We can then utilise fluorescence microscopy to investigate their distributions within live malaria parasites and use this information to probe how they work.
One of the difficulties is that malaria parasites are very, very small – close to the resolution limit of light microscopy – and so I am hoping to harness super-resolution techniques to give us a more detailed look into these cells. Interestingly, it was for this that Stefan Hell (who spoke at this year’s Falling Walls Conference and whom I was fortunate to meet) shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
3. You were also invited to this year's Falling Walls Lab event. What did you think of it? Which presentations were you particularly impressed with and why?
The Falling Walls Lab is always hugely inspiring, not least for the rapid pace of presentations, the sheer breadth of disciplines covered and the palpable passion exuded by the speakers themselves. As you might imagine, my main interest is the application of chemistry to today’s challenges – towards understanding biological systems, in particular – but it is always exciting to see what is happening in other fields. And, of course, that a fellow South African again achieved third place was hugely rewarding!
4. Do you have any advice for aspiring Falling Walls Lab innovators?
Imagination and a thorough understanding are crucial; in particular, being able to draw strings together from several different disciplines. You must really understand your innovation in its context and be able to funnel down from the big picture to the precise question you are addressing. Demonstrate how you are able to make a tangible impact in that field. Doing this should help to make your work accessible; let your enthusiasm speak! And be open to criticism and questions – these are often the catalysts that propel you into ground-breaking territory.
Would you like to share your research project or your innovative idea with fellow researchers and present it in 3-minutes to a high-caliber jury? Are you younger than 35? Then apply for a Falling Walls Lab at www.falling-walls.com/lab/apply