To learn more about Colin Orpin, Joan Edwards met with him.
When did you know you’d become a scientist and what made you do so/triggered it?
I was raised on my parent’s farm in Kent, where we grew hops and fruit and kept numerous types of animals: cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and also a horse. As a child, I always had my head in a hedge or was off tracking anything that moved. Natural history was my thing when I was younger, and I had considered a career as an entomologist. When I didn’t get the Zoology degree course I had applied for, I undertook a degree course in Biochemistry and Soil Science at the University of Wales, in Bangor. The course appealed to me almost as much as the wildlife and areas of natural interest around Bangor.
What was the most significant/exciting/memorable (Eureka) moment in your career?
That’s an easy question. It had to be the time when I was doing my early microscopy work investigating what caused the spike in ruminal numbers of flagellated protozoal soon after feeding. I was looking down the microscope when a mature, differentiating zoosporangium (broken off form the particulate material) floated into view. It was a wriggling mass that burst open in front of my eyes – releasing all of its flagellated zoospores – obviously it was not a protozoan. As well as luck, the key to this eureka moment was having a microscope with a heated stage – it helped to keep the rumen contents alive and kicking. I used to sit mesmerised looking down the microscope at all the rumen microbes milling around – there was just so much activity going on – I could do it all day.
What was the most exciting place you travelled to for your research?
Oooh – now – which one, there were lots. Hmm, Barrow – along the coast of Alaska, was probably the most exciting. I was up there with Eskimos riding snow machines over the ice in order to get to our whale hunting location. In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we had secured some research funding to look into the possibility of whale gut microbes having the ability to degrade crude oil in the beach at Albert Sound. After taking samples from a whale that had been hunted by the Eskimos, I went to the edge of the ice to wash my hands in the sea water that was rising up and down with the waves. As I walked back to the others and the whale, the part of the ice that I had just been standing on broke off – and floated away into the Arctic Ocean. Another close shave happened when I was based in a hut on the tundra in Svalbard. I was ferrying equipment from the track across the open tundra to the hut (research station!) using a snow machine and sledge, when a white-out blizzard started when I was half-way back to the hut. I drove round blindly in increasing circles and eventually found a landmark, a stay cable for the distant Longyearbeyen airport beacon pylon. Luckily I knew in which direction the wind was blowing relative to the beacon and the hut, and managed to find the hut, much to my intense relief. Otherwise I might not be here now.
Which is your favourite fungus?
Haha, well that has to be Neocallimastix patriciarum of course. It was named after my lovely wife. Patricia.
Is there any question on anaerobic fungi that you didn’t answer during your career and that still makes you ponder?
I wanted to know about the phylogeny and the taxonomy of the anaerobic fungi. The tools just weren’t available then to do the work. It’s great to see how far things have come now in our understanding of this, and that they have now been recognised as being a distinct phylum.
What did you use to do to wind down after one of those days in the lab that raised more questions than it answered?
I don’t think I ever had a particular way of winding down on days like that. Normally I suppose I would just tell Pat about it, a problem shared being a problem halved. Having two kids meant that there was normally plenty of distractions at home though to take my mind off things.
If you had the chance to meet one (late) scientist for dinner, who would it be, what would you have and what would you ask or talk to him/her about?
Let me think. Well I remember meeting Professor Hans Krebs, University of Oxford, and he glanced at a set of molecules I had listed as being chemotactic signallers and their respective competitive inhibitors. He told me that it was interesting and warranted further investigation, but I never had the chance to speak to him more about this. For a more current scientist though it would have to be David Attenborough – I am still a naturalist at heart! What to eat – hmmm – lobster thermidore I think. Not sure what it is, but it sounds posh. Or maybe beef wellington – that would be nice too. What would I talk to him about? Well it would have to be anaerobic fungi of course, because he probably wouldn’t know anything about them.
What type of music do you listen to?
I like relaxing music. Sea shanties and the like – traditional folk music I suppose.
Is there anything about today’s science that you would change if you could?
The research done these days is too targeted. There is no opportunity to ‘follow your nose’. Exploratory curiosity driven research seems to be a thing of the past. I guess it is the nature of the funding bodies now. When I started at the ARC Institute of Animal Physiology at Babraham (Cambridge) – now The Babraham Institute – I was given a bench and was told that I was now a rumen microbiologist, and find something to work on! No real direction, but I was located in Geoff Coleman’s lab – he was working on the rumen ciliate protozoa – and I was told to find a rumen microbiological area to work in. I had about six feet of bench and a couple of microscopes (one inverted one which was invaluable for examining cultures) and a phase contrast microscope and access to a couple of rumen -cannulated sheep.
It took me a month or two to make up my mind (lots of reading and hiding in the library!) which area to work in, but no-one had done much with the flagellated protozoa, so even though their apparent biomass was small, I thought I would give them a go – and look what happened: most were not protozoa at all and (debatably) perhaps the most important group of rumen micro-organisms.
Do you have a motto/mantra or a piece of advice for (young) scientists these days?
Keep your nose to the grindstone. Perseverance pays off. Keep an open mind. I had a lot of challenges getting the anaerobic fungi accepted in those days; I thought it was never going to happen. One last thing, never talk yourself out of doing an experiment because you think you know the answer – the result could be very unexpected. And don’t forget the big picture! I’m afraid that’s more than one piece of advice, sorry, but it’s all relevant!