My journey continues onwards to the northernmost tip of the UK in the lowlands of Scotland. A city of writers, philosophers and monarchs, Edinburgh is a rich source of information on the lives and times of the Scottish people. But I didn’t come here to meet a Scot. My brief visit introduces me to one of the many foreign residents of this city. Irina Stancheva (University of Edinburgh) is of Russian/Bulgarian origin from a long line of biologists. “I hate Drosophila because when I was a kid my parents would go away on holiday and leave me at home to take care of all the flies”. But now she’s so hooked on research that she might still be in the lab during the wee small hours.

“The first paper I ever read in my life when I was an undergraduate student was Adrian Bird’s paper on DNA methylation.” She was captivated and wanted to learn more about this form of biochemical tagging that can switch genes off. “I also decided that the only place I wanted to be was Edinburgh, home to so many exciting scientific discoveries”. Now that her dream has come true, she is actively engaged in trying to figure out how genes get switched on and off. I’m surprised to discover that so many genes are normally silenced throughout embryonic development. Irina’s investigations are probing for changes to normal DNA methylation patterns in human cancers. Such altered tags can switch off the wrong genes.

The programming within a cell is a finely-tuned affair and cancer often results when the program goes awry. Every human cancer is different, but hiccups in the program can accidentally silence tumour suppressor genes. Beyond this, the three dimensional structure of DNA and its associated histone proteins can alter, leaving the cell with an entirely different personality. Understanding the intricacies of such epigenetic hiccups could help us to find an appropriate treatment.