Isabel Pires

Congrats Frank! Can't wait to see the real Lego balance in action!

Favourite Thing: I love to think about the results we get in the lab and join the dots between them and all the science out there, to come up with new projects and ideas.



I went to high school in my home town of Castelo Branco, in Portugal. I then went to the University of Coimbra (also in Portugal), from 1997 to 2002. I finally went to The University of Manchester (2003-2007) to do my PhD.


UG University degree (Biology) 1997-2002; PhD (Pharmacology) 2003-2007

Work History:

Between by UG degree and my PhD I was a visiting scientist at The University of Manchester. After my PhD I went to the University of Oxford to work as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist (2007-2012). In 2012 I moved to Hull to become a lecturer and run my own lab.

Current Job:

Lecturer in Biomedical Science (since 2012)


University of Hull

Me and my work

I am a Cancer Biologist, and in my work I try to understand how the conditions in a tumour can change the cells within it, and how we can use these changes to make cancer cells easier to detect and more sensitive to treatment.

Did you know that, inside most tumours, there are areas with very low oxygen available, or maybe even no oxygen at all? And did you know these areas are very important for the cancer cells becoming more aggressive, harder to kill and easier to spread to others parts of the body?

It is these parts of the tumours that we study in my lab, so we can understand the biology behind these changes and adaptations and, more importantly, how we can spot these cells before they become nasty. I am also interested in how we can make these cells easier to kill with chemo and radio therapy.

One of the cool ways in which we can imitate low oxygen in tumours is by placing the cancer cells we work with is a specialised box with gloves, a bit like the one Homer Simpson uses at the start of the Simpsons intro. But instead of radioactivity, we have a low oxygen gas mix. In one of the photos below you can see me working one of these chambers (as well as in my profile picture).


Our hands and arms can get very sweaty, because the inside of the chamber is kept at 37 degrees, just like our bodies, so the cancer cells don’t just die before we can do our experiments with them. In the photo below you can see the cells in the dish I am holding underneath the small microscope placed inside the chamber.




My Typical Day

I am a Lecturer and a Researcher, which means I spend most of my day split between teaching, a bit of admin, and thinking, talking and writing about biomedical science, especially cancer biology. I don’t get to play in the lab as much as I would like to, but I do sneak in every now and then, to my PhD students’ annoyance :)

What I'd do with the money

One think I would like to do is to write a book explaining cancer to children. I would also like to do what we call a “citizen science” project: this is where we have the public help us scientists to do data analysis at a large scale. For this I would like to potentially develop an app to help with the data analysis.




My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Crafty (I do a lot of crafts!) and creative chatterbox

Who is your favourite singer or band?

It is a tie between REM and Supertramp. If you include classical music, it has to be Beethoven, hands down.

What's your favourite food?

Do I have to pick one (I love food)? If I must, bananas.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Riding a horse in full gallop in the mountains in Portugal. Scary but fun!

What did you want to be after you left school?

An Academic or University Professor – I always wanted to work in labs, libraries and universities. So you can say I am living the dream :)

Were you ever in trouble at school?

I was very well behaved, honest!

What was your favourite subject at school?

I was (and am) a geeky book worm and I loved school, all subjects except PE. So for me it has to be a tie between biology, portuguese (my first language) and arts, but I really liked maths too. Can’t decide!

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

As I do a lot of public engagement, I really appreciated being given the opportunity to chat to people about my work and see how it can actually make a difference to them. One of the last things I did was stand on a Soapbox in the Southbank in London to explain my work to the passers-by without any slides and just a few props – scary but really good fun :)

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Marie Curie, Dinosaurs and my high-school science teacher, prof Adriano.

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

A historian, specialising on 18th century women’s lives or the french revolution. Or knitting, drawing and sewing all day long :)

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

1) more time to do all the things I want to do! 2) to be happy :) 3) to own a camper van

Tell us a joke.

Q: What’s the difference between a weasel and a stoat? A: One is weasibly recognisable, whereas the other is stoately different.

Other stuff

Work photos:


This is a picture of a part of my lab. It looks very empty because all the students ran away when they say me coming over to take a picture 🙂

On the back right is my low-oxygen chamber – my pride and joy and best piece of kit in the lab.

You can also see at the corner of an office door in the picture – that is my office, right in the lab, so I can keep an eye out on things.