Meet the Scientist - Dr Adrian Allen

This month Dr Adrian Allen from Bacteriology Branch talks about his role within AFBI

Dr Adrian Allen
Dr Adrian Allen
I am an SSO in the Molecular Unit of the Bacteriology Branch. My research interests are around population genetics and its application to bovine TB and brucellosis research – specifically bacterial evolution, epidemiology and host resistance. I am involved in efforts to better understand the population genetics of badgers across the island of Ireland at a national and local scale.  I also run AFBI’s forensic cattle DNA profiling laboratory.

I’m a Fulbright Scholar and you can view my researchgate profile

After completing my degree in Biochemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, I undertook a PhD in cardiac disease pharmacology, which led to a post-doc in the genetics of ischemic heart disease.  I then applied for and got the job of project leader for the then Science Service’s Vision Project on biometric means of identifying cattle.  That was in 2004, and now, 12 years later, I find myself the Technical Manager of AFBI’s cattle DNA testing laboratory, which grew out of the Vision programme.

My research interests revolve around animal and bacterial genetics. Specifically, I have been involved in efforts to better understand the epidemiology and evolution of the pathogens that cause bovine tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis.  In the latter case, I’ve been very fortunate to undertake a 3 month Fulbright sabbatical in the US, genome sequencing isolates of Brucella abortus as a means to better understand its transmission dynamics.  I also have an ongoing interest in animal genetics, specifically focusing on cattle resistance to TB and the population structure of the Eurasian badger across Ireland.

The best bits of my job have involved working with a dedicated team of staff in AFBI and much valued collaborators from across the island of Ireland, Great Britain and the US. In my experience, good science occurs at the intersection of curiosity, expertise, openness and genuine collaboration. I’ve been privileged to work with some like minded individuals, some who are sadly no longer with us, to deliver interesting and useful findings. In an open environment, ideas and collaborations combine to drive progress.

Scientists are a misunderstood bunch, very often pigeon holed as barely communicative nerds with a poor grasp of what reality is all about.  The great irony being, that reality is our business.  And no tool better describes reality than the scientific method. If you think something is true, don’t just accept it.  Test it. Unreservedly pursue the facts that don’t support your hypothesis. And when, as happens 99% of the time, you’re proved wrong, have the courage to admit it and look elsewhere for an answer. This is how we progress, every now and then finding the little glimmer of information that tells us how the world really works.

AFBI plays a central role in applying that method to the problems facing modern agriculture.  It’s a pleasure to be involved, in some small way, in that grand enterprise.

Facts about Dr Adrian Allen:

Can you cook? If so, what is your speciality dish?
Big fan of cooking, I find it very calming. Stews are a speciality. Think ‘autumnal comfort food’ and you’ll best understand my mostly limited ouevre. I do a mean coq au vin and a chicken cacciatore.  Aside from this, I really like seafood, especially shellfish - langoustines, scallops, mussels, crab, lobster.  I’ve had a dabble with all of them and once did a ‘good’ (my friend’s opinion) lobster thermidor for a dinner party.  I should add my friend is notoriously hard to please, so I was made up.

What is the last book you read?
‘Inventing the Individual’ by Larry Siedentop.  This is a great historical investigation of why the idea of Liberalism, which is thankfully the basis for all Western democracies, came to dominate the minds of many.  You can see how early Christianity forged the idea of the responsibility of the individual as important to society, and how when the Enlightenment came along in the 1700s, secularism co-opted this idea and refined it.  It’s like a guide book to why the modern western world is the way it is.

What is your favourite book?
I never read enough fiction, and I’m always berating myself for not doing so.  That said, I have some favourite novels.  It would be a toss up between ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’.  If pushed, I’d plump for the latter. It’s set in a sort of fantasy version of early Britain after the Romans have left and deals with the major theme of whether a memory of past events, good and particularly bad events, is a good thing.  Interesting reading from a Northern Irish perspective.

My favourite non-fiction book is again a difficult choice. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond is a great book that won the Pulitzer, and is great at explaining why the modern world is the way it is. Nick Cohen’s ‘What’s Left’ is a very topical, and incredibly prescient view of modern politics on the left, and I find myself recommending it to everyone I know lately. However, I really enjoyed Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’. It’s my favourite popular science book. It’s modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury tales and tracks back in time through evolutionary history, rendezvousing with all our common ancestors from the animal, plant and bacterial kingdoms back to the dawn of life.  It’s wonderfully written and engaging, and a surprisingly easy read given the scope.

What is your favourite TV/radio show?
On radio, ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4 is superb.  Melvyn Bragg gets 4 academics together for an hour to talk about one subject.  The diversity of the chosen subjects is the best bit – one week you can have a discussion on the English Civil War, and the next you’ll be listening to quantum theory, all explained for a lay audience.  It’s good listening to the podcast when going for a run, walking the dogs or cutting the grass.

On Television, it’s very hard to beat ‘Game of Thrones’.  Although ‘The Thick of It’ does come very close. I increasingly find myself having a Malcolm Tucker inspired internal dialogue as I get older.

What is your favourite Film?
‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ is a favourite since I saw it in my teens.  Big themes, a wonderful central premise and the best use of ‘The Blue Danube’ outside of Vienna on New Year’s Day. This said I have a real, nostalgic soft spot for Steven Spielberg’s ET.

Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Eleanor Roosevelt, because she knew the human mind very well. Cecilia Payne to admiringly ask how tough it was not to get credit for her great insight, but to carry on. Caitlin Moran for laughs and thought provoking commentary. Audrey Hepburn for boyhood crush reasons. Carl Sagan for inspiration and awe. But most likely, the late Christopher Hitchens gets the gig.  Witty, funny, erudite and able to talk knowledgeably about anything it seemed.  He was one of those rare individuals that you could disagree with but always find entertaining. I reserve the right to change my mind should any of these people have a history of dubious personal hygiene.

Who’s the last person you would like to be stuck in a lift with?
Vladimir Putin / Nigel Farage / Boris Johnson / Westlife / Idi Amin.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could bring 3 things – what would they be?
Book – JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion’ – It’s the only book I’ve ever re-read again and again and enjoyed.  It’s a fantastic myth.
Object – Acoustic guitar.  I never play much now sadly, but I remember being able to effortlessly pass 3-4 hours as a student just playing guitar.
Food – Tayto cheese and onion. 

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could bring along 3 people – Who would you bring?
My wife Jennifer. My friends Alison and Graham.  I would hope between the four of us we could scrape out a living using a mixture of gardening prowess, scouting skills, aversion to cannibalism and ISO17025 experience......

If you weren’t in your current position what job/career would you like to be doing?
I’d like to have tried my hand at writing - popular science, commentary, politics.  A lot of those things interest me, and I admire people who write really well about them.

Do you have a pet? If so, what is it and what is its name?
I have two rescue West Highland Terrier dogs called Mac and Isla.

What are your hobbies?
I like running.  I’m not very competitive or very fast, but can just about manage a sub 50 minute 10K on very good days.  Also like cycling, reading, cooking and shouting at the TV during Newsnight.

What 3 things would you put on your bucket list?
I don’t really have a bucket list.  I think you can spend so long dwelling on the potential future that you don’t enjoy the present. Grasshopper.  This said, I’d like to see wolves in Yellowstone sometime.

What is your favourite team/sport you support?
For club football, I support Glentoran.  Have done since 1995 when I arrived in Belfast as a student and got hooked in by a friend who was a lifelong supporter.  Whilst the Irish League is not a technically superb league, for me it’s much better being able to see your team than be an armchair supporter of English teams with whom I have no real connection.

At international football level, I support Northern Ireland.  I’ve been a block booker for around 20 years now and have only missed 2 home games in that time I think. Have had a few away trips too, to Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Manchester and Nice. I’ve seen a lot of good and bad stuff in my time attending.  At present, it’s all positive on many fronts, and long may it continue.

What sport do/did you play?
I am universally appalling at all sports! I was always the last kid picked in the lineup at school.  I have no eye-foot / eye-hand co-ordination at all and I lack that competitive edge that people like Roy Keane have in buckets.  As an illustration of this lack of prowess, it is worth noting that my one significant (non) action in a sports game came in a volley ball match for my Boys’ Brigade company.  It was a final against our big rivals from Magherafelt.  We only needed a point to win.  They were serving, and over-hit a ball to my side of the court.  I was gearing up to hit it with team mates screaming ‘leave it’ at me.  Thankfully, I did, the ball went out, and we won.  Not exactly Gerry Armstrong vs Spain in ’82.

Who is your favourite superhero/cartoon character?
I always preferred the morally ambiguous / trickster / anti hero types.  Loki ticks all the boxes.

What unique fact do we not know about you?
Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so vain’ is actually about me.  Not Jagger or Beatty. Honestly. So my wife says.

What is the most exciting thing you have ever done?
I got within feet of a pod of Orcas off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  The sheer size of those animals, their grace and the sound of their breathing as they breached the water was oddly life affirming.

What is your favourite food/dinner?
Smoked salmon, hollandaise sauce, (soft) poached egg and steamed asparagus.

What is your favourite restaurant?