I have always been fascinated by two things - the natural world and physics - so I am extremely lucky to work in biomechanics, investigating the engineering of organisms. I started my scientific career working out how flies fly, and how their wings are designed. I then moved into botany and took up a NERC fellowship to investigate how the roots of plants anchor them in the ground and stop them falling over. I carried on this work after taking up a lectureship at Manchester, building the foundation for understanding root anchorage and helping prevent crop plants from lodging.
Teaching and supervising many talented project and Ph.D. students has also allowed me to develop several other lines of research. We have investigated the many effects of mechanical stimulation on plant growth, studied the role of buttresses in rainforest trees, and investigated the hydraulic design of trees. With collaborators at Sussex University we have demonstrated how silica particles in grass leaves – essentially tiny pieces of glass – defend them against herbivores. With collaborators in Material Science, we have elucidated the mechanical design of our fingernails and are currently investigating the frictional performance of our fingerpads to answer the question: why do we have fingerprints? Finally, I am interested in the mechanics of wood and how it is used by man. We are currently investigating how orangutans move among compliant branches and build their nests - information which will help us understand the evolution of man's relatioship with wood. The Biomechanics MSc has helped us develop biomechanics throughout the University of Manchester and North West of England.
Mechanics is not the only branch of physics relevant to Biology; recently I have also started collaborating with the School of Environment and Development, studying the environmental benefits of trees and grassland in urban areas, and their role in climate-proofing our cities. Working with the Red Rose Forest, Barcham Nurseries and Manchester City Council, we are quantifying the cooling capabilities of trees, their effectiveness at preventing urban flooding, and the effects of planting regime and climate change on the trees.
Of course university teaching should also broaden our interests, and I have enjoyed writing textbooks in areas as disparate as environmental problem solving, plant science and trees. I am currently writing the third edition of Statistical and Data Handling Skills in Biology and a research book for Princeton University Press on Solid Biomechanics.