Louise Johnson

I'm sorry to go but at least I can catch up with work now!

Favourite Thing: I love playing with new ideas and talking with people about all the mind-boggling things genes do.



Boroughmuir High School, Edinburgh (1989-1993)


Edinburgh University, 1993-1997; Imperial College, London 1997-2001.

Work History:

I worked in a chip shop while I was a student. Since then I’ve worked at the University of Nottingham and the University of Virginia.


University of Reading

Current Job:

Academic Fellow. I do mostly research with a bit of teaching.

Me and my work

I work on the 99% of your DNA that *isn’t* your genes

About my work

I’ve always found living things fascinating, so after school I did a genetics degree and went on from there. The most interesting things of all to me were “jumping genes” or “transposons”: genes that break the rules! 

Transposons were discovered by my science hero, Barbara McClintock, in the 1950s. Hardly anyone understood her at first because they’re so weird: instead of staying put in an animal’s (or plant’s) chromosome and getting passed on to its offspring like normal genes, transposons move around and multiply. It turns out they’re extremely common and very important – more than half of human DNA is either transposons, or the remains of ancient transposons! Transposons can cause genetic disease, but they can also speed up evolution. You can even use them as tools for genetic engineering.


This is Barbara McClintock winning the Nobel Prize in 1983. She showed’em.

Most of my work has been on transposons and “whose side they’re on” – should we think of them as DNA diseases, or as helpers?  But like most people (!) I’m also interested in sex. I’ve worked out how often wild yeast have sex, and why a bodysnatching flower fungus prefers to have sex with itself. I use a lot of maths in my work. It’s not that bad. Really.


Yeast cells doin’it. The pear-shaped cells are growing towards attractive partners – when they touch, they mate.

As for me – I’m 33, live in Reading with my boyfriend and two cats, I’m training for a half marathon and I like baking cakes. I named one of our cats Morgan after a scientist, but my boyfriend wouldn’t let me call the other one Theodosius Dobzhansky.

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Morgan and Trouble. Because cute pictures of cats are what the internet is all about.

My Typical Day

I write a lot, teach a bit, think as much as I can, and leave the dull stuff ’til last.

It depends on the day, but here’s what I did today:

I spent the morning working on a paper which I’ve been writing with some colleagues from Queen Mary University in London. It’s about a strange quirk of our genes, which is that there’s only one way to stay “start making protein!” but three ways to say “stop!” (That’s as simply as I can say it, but do ask me for more explanation!). Nobody knows why. We have an idea which we’ve tested in as many ways as we can think of, and now we’re trying to get a paper published. I’m rewriting the bits of it that were difficult to understand, or that people disagreed about, in the first version.


Reading Uni has rather a pretty campus, so I often take my lunch outside for a picnic in the botanic garden.

After lunch I  had a meeting with the two students who are doing research projects with me next year. Both of them will be learning computer programming for the first time! One, Emma, is going to be researching the evolution of ageing in computer-simulated life forms, and the other, Nathan, will be looking at a weird seaweed that reads its DNA in a different way to anything else on earth.

Then for the boring bit – I had loads of marking to do, because it’s exam time. I enjoy teaching, but I’m not a “natural” and have only been doing it for a couple of years. So it’s been difficult at times… both for me and my students!


My office looks like this.

What I'd do with the money

Make an audio guide for our museum of animal life.


The Cole Museum of Zoology

Our department owns a small museum of animal life, which is open to the public.  It’s small, but has everything from fossil spiders and snake skeletons to an elephant foetus in a jar! The museum is used for school visits and by the local community as well as by our students and staff. Over the past few years, we’ve brought it into the 21st century – we have an up-to-date leaflet, new displays and a Web presence – but visitors have suggested that it would be great to be able to download a podcast guide and listen to it as they walk through the museum!

The guide will have descriptions of the exhibits by our experts, animal noises, sound effects, bonus facts and music. The £500 will go to paying a student to create, record and produce it.  We get a new way to tell people about our work, the student gets work experience to help her/him get a cool job, our museum visitors get to find out about science in a way that suits them, and our website visitors get a virtual tour with sound included, from anywhere in the world. Everyone wins!

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Enthusiastic, creative, stubborn

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I can’t pick one, I like all sorts of music! The last music I bought was by Rokia Traore.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I really enjoyed living and working in the US for three years!

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

I’d wish for unlimited research money, the ability to speak lots of foreign languages, and an amazing singing voice – that last one’s not for science, just for fun.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to be a chemical engineer because I heard they earned lots of money, but then I decided it was more important to do something I enjoyed.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Only occasionally. Once for skiving and once when I cut my fingernails with a pencil sharpener and another kid copied me and bled everywhere.

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

I was very proud of the first paper I wrote on my own. It was about how transposons might have made it easier for single-celled life to evolve into animals.

Tell us a joke.

What’s green and leaky? A leek!