Ian Hands-Portman

I want more questions!

Favourite Thing: I love looking for viruses, they’re beautiful structures to look at and you never quite find what you’re expecting.



Oxford – St. Annes college 1988 -1994


O levels – yes I am that old, A levels – Chemistry, Biology, Physics, S levels – Chem & Bio. Biochemistry – Ba.

Work History:

Avonmore daries Hereford – a temp job making sure milk was pastuerised properly -1994, 1994-1996 Institute of Food Research X-ray crystallographer studying the structure of enzymes that ripen cheese, 1996 – present, University of Warwick – it’s a permanent contract which is good to have and I have had different roles here.

Current Job:

The Imaging Suite Manager


University of Warwick – School of Life Sciences

Me and my work

I run huge microscopes and teach other people how to use them.

I run two electron microscopes and several confocal microscopes. I either look at samples for people and send them the results or teach them how to use the microscopes themselves, it all depends on how much work they need to do.

The electron microscopes are  house sized pieces of kit that use electrons to look at very small objects, mine will go up to a million times magnification. We usually use them to look at individual protein molecules or whole viruses or very thin slices of cells trying to understand how a drug works or a what a disease does on a molecular level. Once it a while I get something odd – I’ve looked at the fats droplets in icecream for a company that wanted to make them smaller and more uniform to get a creamier taste with less fat.

The confocals are very different things – they’re still huge microscopes but don’t have the magnification of an electron microscope – just  1000x. They shine a laser onto a sample and look for a fluoresent signal coming back, we label cells with dyes attached to different proteins in the cell and use the fluoresence like a highlighter pen to make specific details stand out. It’s the ability to cut out all the information we’re not interested in that makes them so powerful. We might use them to study the function of a particular gene within a cell or to look at how a virus responds to a particular drug.

My Typical Day

I sit quietly in the dark at a microscope staring at life’s hidden wonders.

My days are rarely typical as I help other people do their research. I’m normally in for eight to make sure everything’s working before other people come in. If I have to teach someone I like to do that in the morning so they can spend the afternoon practising whilst I’m still around to help. Unless I’m on a microscope all day I spend a couple of hours before lunches going through emails, answering enquiries and helping academics design their next experiment. Usually by the afternoon I’ll be preparing specimens for the next few days.

Sometimes I’ll be on a microscope by myself looking at samples for somebody that can’t make it or doesn’t need to learn,  I’ll put in some earphones and listen to music or a radio play whilst I work. If things are going well I tend to work straight through breaks uninterrupted as it’s the best way to get good data and genuinely enjoy working with microscopes.

Working in very dark rooms all the time takes a bit of getting used to – the winter’s not nice as I’ll get to work whilst it’s dark and leave after sunset so might not see daylight for a few days but it’s worth it for the times I’ve been the first person to see something new to science.




What I'd do with the money

Buy a 3d printer.

My microscopes are the size of a shed and not portable and work is very visual – I produce 3d images of cells and living organisms, they look great but don’t make for a very interactive experience. I’d like to be able to turn out 3d models of some of my specimens so people can get real idea of how beautiful the architecture of a cell can be.

Ultimately I’d  to use it to build some fully dissectable models of cells and a parts for an ‘alien autopsy’ to demonstrate how different ( real ) organisms on earth have adapted to their enviroments.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Haphazard, tenacious, curious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like to listen music whilst I’m working, the Clash tend to feature on my playlists a lot.

What's your favourite food?

I’ll eat pretty much anything but you can’t beat a freshly baked loaf of bread – I bake a lot.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Flying trapeze! I’m scared to the point of nearly quitting every time I climb the ladder but I love it.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A scientist – and never really anything else

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Very rarely but once in while for not making the slightest effort in sport

What was your favourite subject at school?


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

Discovered new viruses from deep sea black smokers- weird and wonderful things living in boiling sulphuric acid two miles down.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I can’t name anyone in particular – I was the kid who wanted to know “Why?” about everything since I first learned to speak, I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers to support me in that.

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

I have no idea, I’ve been very single minded about working in science. I’d probably be a science teacher.

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

Immortality of some sort so I have time to study everything I want, enough income to afford that and I think I’d keep the third as a back up.

Tell us a joke.

Velcro, what a rip off.

Other stuff

Work photos:

myimage1 Me at the electron microscope

myimage4Setting up a confocal microscope

myimage5Something I found in the pond looked at under an electron microscope – it’s a bacteriophage, a virus that feeds on bacteria. About a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

myimage2Teaching a new student how to load a sample into the EM.

myimage6Confocal microscope – A single brain cell fluorescing in green. The blue dots surrounding it are the nucleii of of other brain cells, under a normal microscope these would look identical.

myimage7We went hunting for viruses with a class from a local school and found this in the pond water, there were lots of them. Noone has been able to identify it – it’s way too small to be a cell but looks nothing like any virus anyone has seen. I hope one day someone will tell me what they are.