Q&A with biochemistry and immunology professor Luke O’Neill
Luke O’Neill is professor of biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin. Raised in Bray, Co Wicklow, Professor O’Neill was educated at TCD, where he was awarded an undergraduate degree in natural sciences (biochemistry) in 1985. He completed his postgraduate study at the University of London where he was awarded a PhD in pharmacology. He has written two books, Humanology: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Amazing Existence, and a children’s book, The Great Irish Science Book. Scientist by day, lead singer of his band, The Metabolix, by night, he is married to fellow scientist Margaret Worrall and lives in Dublin.
What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting on the grass in my grandmother’s garden in the sun near geraniums.
What was the first book you loved?
A book that really got me early on was Asimov’s Guide to Science – it was a brilliantly written book about biology, chemistry and physics, told in an historical way so it almost read like a story.
What’s your best holiday memory?
When I was eight, I flew to England for a holiday with English relatives. I’ll never forget the excitement of that flight. Not sure when I will fly again!
What is your biggest fear?
That we’ll make a mess of the world for future generations.
What are you most proud of?
My two sons, Stevie and Sam. They are great lads altogether.
What’s the first thing you’d do if you were Taoiseach?
Put pictures of great Irish scientists on the wall of my office.
Who would you most like to go for a pint with?
All the people who have worked in my lab over the years – it was great working with them.
What fictional character do you most identify with?
Leopold Bloom – mainly because I walk past the places he walked past nearly every day!
What is your most treasured possession?
My dad fought in World War II – he was a tank driver in the Eighth Army. I have some of the things he kept from that time, including some pictures of him and the manual for the Sherman tank he drove.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My dad always said to try and be kind to others, because you don’t know what they’ve been through.
What item in your wardrobe do you wear the most?
Blue shirts – I seem to have a lot of them.
Who are your heroes?
Teachers – it’s a job that has become difficult for a whole host of reasons, but they have the ability to make a huge difference to people’s lives. Education is one of the most important things we have.
When did you last cry?
A friend of mine, Dr Brian McManus, managed to get a keg of Guinness recently. When he handed me my first pint of Guinness in ages, I burst into tears.
What are you going to do right after this interview?
Get back to work. My lab is almost back to normal – we are working on aspects of the inflammatory process in Covid-19.
What keeps you awake at night?
Luckily, nothing much; I’m a pretty good sleeper.
What’s your greatest passion in life?
It’s hard to beat the thrill of a good scientific discovery. We have some very interesting findings at the moment and we hope they pan out.
What’s your favourite film?
I’ve always loved Jaws. More relevant than ever. The shark is the virus, Hooper is the scientist, Brody is the public health doctor, Vaughn the mayor is worried about the economy and Quint is the frontline healthcare worker. I especially like the clash between Vaughn and Hooper – Hooper is trying to warn the mayor, who accuses Hooper of just wanting his name in the National Geographic. The issues being played out in Jaws are highly similar to what is happening with Covid-19.
What’s the last TV show you binge-watched?
Better Call Saul.
What’s the phone app you use most?
I use a great one called Windy, which is a fantastic weather- forecasting app.
What one piece of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Don’t take advice off people in their 50s.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
A highly effective immune system would be very handy.
What did you learn about yourself during lockdown?
That I needed to get back to the lab as soon as possible!
What job would you be terrible at?
A tailor. I did my best to make masks with a sewing machine recently. They were rough and ready but hopefully effective in these times.