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If you happen to meet a clinical scientist and you are not one yourself, you may not grasp all the nitty-gritty. Professor Nazneen Rahman is a very bright clinical scientist, while I scraped a B in my chemistry GCSE, and that may be why I feel so anxious and sweaty perched in the kitchen of her suburban home in southwest London. It may also be because today is unseasonably warm for spring.
The kitchen is spotless and gleaming — a palette of greys and blues, no clutter. Wide glass doors lead on to a spartan garden with a fake-grass lawn. Rahman does not look too warm in her blue plastic chair; she talks with breezy cool.
In the early 1990s, she studied medicine at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, completing a PhD in molecular genetics at The Institute of Cancer Research in 1999. Now she works at the institute and the Royal Marsden, a leading cancer hospital. Her job titles contain a daunting number of words, at least one of which — epidemiology — trips me up. “Head of cancer genetics covers it,” she says.
Rahman is highly articulate, punctuating her scientific discourse with peals of laughter. (As expected, she is talking to an idiot.) Genes carry instructions for how the body works, she explains. There are about 20,000 genes. Genes are made up of DNA. The DNA code is made up of four letters, A, C, T and G. It contains about three billion letters over all. And a genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA.
The kitchen feels very warm indeed.
“It’s incredibly simple,” says Rahman. “It’s just four letters, and it’s the order of those letters that makes it work.” Her team is looking for “spelling mistakes” within the code. Very bad spelling mistakes may — or may not — cause cancer.
At this point Rahman whips out her tablet. “I have something — I might show it to you, actually — on my blog, Harvesting the Genome . . . ” In a post called “The many flavours of genetic mutation”, she outlines the different mutations, using language instead of letters: “The man saw the dog hit the cat”. “The dog hit the cat” might make you wonder, but if that mutates into “the maa gns awt hed ogh itt hec a”, it could be very sinister for entirely different reasons. Mutations in the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 can look like this. BRCA2 was discovered at the institute, incidentally — “one of our most important findings”.
Rahman lives with her 20-year-old son, Haroon, when he is not studying at Bath university. She moved to this leafy part of London 11 years ago and her late-Victorian house is spick and span but not severe. The sitting room is full of pictures. “I love art,” she says. “I just got this, it’s called ‘Healing Garden’ (abstract plants on a maroon background by Bruce McLean). “Do you like it?” I do. “I like it,” says Rahman. “It makes me very happy.”
Rapid technological advances also make Rahman happy. While it took 10 years and “millions and millions” of pounds to sequence the first human genome, about five years ago everything changed. Now “you can get a genome — three billion letters — cut it up into pieces, and read them all at the same time”. So what used to take years, you can do in a day. Which means that more people can be tested.
No one is going to cure cancer once and for all, “because ‘cancer’ is an umbrella term that covers hundreds, possibly thousands of diseases. It’s a bit like ‘infection’,” says Rahman. But can you avoid it? No, she says. You can be good — keep fit and don’t smoke — and that should help, but luck has a hand in cancer. One in three people get it and we all get something in the end.
Imparting these sober truths, Rahman radiates good health. The air carries not a whiff of tobacco and I bet (without checking) that the fridge is laden with goodness.
Being both a doctor and a scientist, Rahman is a conduit between the National Health Service and scientific research. “Most of my research ideas come from seeing patients, and seeing the problems that need to be solved,” she says.
Scientific discovery requires imagination. To push the boundaries of understanding, you have to think “outside the box”, you have to be creative. Which sounds obvious (once Rahman has come out with it), but then I knew that she was creative. The eminent professor is also “Nazneen”, sultry singer/songwriter.
“My music has existed, as long as I’ve existed,” Rahman says. But she started recording only in 2011. Her voice is supple and seductive, and her songs — some her own and some jazz covers of pop songs — belong in a bar with dim blue lights. “So I made this version of ‘My Funny Valentine’,” she says. And she sang “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” by Kate Bush, and then discovered Soundcloud (a website where you can post your own music) — “and it just sort of took off”. On Soundcloud, she was an artist, not a doctor and “it sort of somehow unleashed something in me”.
In 2014, she launched an album, Can’t Clip My Wings, at the 606 Club in London. Is she writing a second album? Yes — and she unleashes a peal of laughter in acknowledgment of this happy fact.
Every day she plays her piano in the sitting room. A “fake Picasso” of a jug and fruit hangs above it, and to the left stands a snazzy table with three tiers, where she writes her songs. “I really love quirky design,” she says.
If she could teach her student self something, what would it be? “I think it’s taken me a long time to step up and just be me . . . I’m being more proactive now, I’m thinking ‘this is a problem, it’s actually entirely solvable, we can do it faster, better and cheaper’.”
For someone so busy, she is also an avid tweeter, tweeting about women who inspire women, the environment, medicine and music.
“And I love it,” she says. “I love the whole of social media, and I love the way the world’s got smaller.” During our 70 minutes together, she uses the word “love” 30 times.
Is she as nice as she seems? Faint annoyance ripples across Rahman’s face. “I don’t know, it’s a strange question . . . I’m not good at ‘good enough’.” And some people can find that “quite exacting”. She is a perfectionist, in other words. So that’s a black mark. Another black mark is that she will not discuss her political views. They are not relevant, she says, but I disagree. And then we reach her lawn.
Does she like gardening? “No. I’ve got an artificial lawn,” she says. “I like the idea of it, but I have pots, and they are pots of death.”
At the top of the house — with a bird’s-eye view of these pots of death — Rahman has made a study filled with sunlight. There is a picture above her desk called “Hope” by Peter Blake. Is she an optimist by nature? She laughs again. “Haven’t you worked that out yet?”
Alexander Gilmour is a commissioning editor on House & Home
Photographs: Chris Winter