Dr Gale Brightwell is a Principal Scientist at AgResearch. As one of our leading researchers she mentors our next generation of scientists.


Scientist Profile

Gale Brightwell once held, what on the surface appeared to be the perfect job.

Working for the British Defence Force was, Gale says, the “only place I've ever worked where money was never a problem.”

“The work was interesting, and yes, I did need to sign the Official Secrets Act.  But in the end, I had to leave, on principle.”

We’ll get into the rationale that explains the ‘on principle’ decision shortly, and the reasons for leaving a science gig with an endless money pit, or something close to it.

Gale found alternate employment and her career went on its own merry way. And it is important to know that she tells the anecdote without great fanfare or regret.

But the feeling of working on something that she didn’t believe in never left her. And that realisation played a significant part in her future career choices, including eventually coming to New Zealand.

But back – as promised – to Porton Down and the Ministry of Defence we go.

New Labour and Tony Blair had swept to power in what was a period of renewal and cool Britannia.

By this stage in her career, Gale, a senior scientist, had acquired the molecular expertise for the Defence Force to ask her to sign the Official Secrets Act and place her brain in their service.

The general initial optimism about the direction Britain was heading was replaced with disquiet for many, including Brightwell, who now picks up the story.

“I worked on two kinds of projects. One was to identify potential targets for vaccines in, I suppose, what could be termed as bio-weapon type organisms, like anthrax and other dangerous pathogens. The other one was finding detection methods for the British Army and allies that could be used in active operations. We were, I believe, one of the first units that really started to work on the light cycler technologies and getting them validated and robust enough to be used in the field.

“It was around the time of the second Iraq war and there was a lot of stuff going off in politics at the time that didn’t sit right with me. I left and went to work at a hospital.

“Values for me are really important and, you know, to get that buzz from the science, I need to believe in what I'm doing. I suppose it's an integrity thing, isn't it? And when it starts getting eroded by strange politics, it takes away from what you're doing and why you're doing it.”

Where it all began

Gale was born in in Derby, her family steeped in the proud history of British institution, British Rail.

Her father, Bryan, instilled in his daughter a love of learning and, thanks to his employer, a passion for travel. A perk of working for British Rail was a free rail pass for the family and the ticket to ride meant Gale acquired enthusiasm for exploring the world. However, other distractions such as being only one of eight girls at a boys’ grammar school resulted in a great social life but not the A-Levels she required to study at university.

Gale's father, Bryan Brightwell

After leaving school, she got a job as a medical laboratory technician in the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, the first step on her science journey.

“When you work in a hospital, you get to see the impact you are having on people’s lives.

“You feel you're doing a really important job.

“You can see the value of what you're doing, and I just really enjoyed that environment, seeing the patients and things like that, you know, you understand the ‘why’ part of what you're doing.

“I think that stayed with me.”

A change of scene saw Gale help set up a histology laboratory for the pharmaceutical company, SmithKline Beechams, in Surrey where she worked as a research associate.

“It was really the people who I worked with there that suggested I should go to university. They kind of pushed me into it and helped me fill out the forms. Nobody in our family had ever been to university before. I applied to University of East Anglia and did my degree in what was a new subject area then, molecular biology.”

Life in academia was good. Gale tasted early success, too.

In just her third year at university, a summary of a project she participated in was published in Nature Biotechnology. Having her name in such a prestigious journal whet her appetite for post-graduate research.

“I actually took some time out between my PhD and degree and went travelling overseas for about a year with my boyfriend at the time, backpacking all over India, Egypt, Israel, Southeast Asia. It was probably one of the highlights of my life having all that time where you can just decide ‘where do I want to go today’.

“But I was always coming back to Norwich to do my PhD in molecular genetics and it started with a funny story. My professor, Andy Johnston, was sitting at a train station with an old friend who worked for [Shell] and talked him into supporting a PhD to work on a bacteria called Agrobacterium radiobacter.

“It makes a coat, a kind of bluey-white mucus or exopolysaccharide that they wanted to use in oil rig wells to flush out the last of the oil. The microbial genetics labs were really well resourced and were one of the first groups that had automated sequencing facilities and PCR machines. It was a long time ago.

“At the time molecular biology was really just beginning and suddenly really high profile. For example, the race for the defective gene in cystic fibrosis. So it was a really exciting time to be in science.”

A stint at Bristol University’s Medical School working on Wilm’s Tumour was followed by a trip to Australia where she “landed on her feet there working on melanoma research” at the newly formed and prestigious Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Queensland.

“That was a really nice job. Again, working on the same molecular technologies but working on samples for people you knew really needed help.”

Gale visited New Zealand for the first time on her reluctant way home to Britain and a new job at Porton Down with the Ministry of Defence, a period of cleansing in the Human Genetics Division at the University of Southampton working on Fragile X for the highly respected Professor Pat Jacobs OBE who was the first to find evidence that the Y chromosome is male determining in mammals, and then finally the big move to New Zealand in 2004.        

“We just kind of packed up our bags, sold the house, and went. I set up five job interviews for when I arrived and ended up getting offers on them all. I had the experience in molecular biology that everyone was looking for at the time.

“I took the job at Ruakura in the food safety team as I could just see or sense that the team really needed someone to bring in some new ideas and new technology and was actually a really good place for me to fit where I could bring value.

“It just felt right. I was in the [Hamilton] Botanical Gardens discussing this with my husband at the time, and it was a lovely warm day, and it was just a beautiful place, and I don't know, everything just felt right for that job, and I was right.”

Gale enjoyed the work.

“They were very, very industry focused, very applied, which was something that was quite new to me, and [they were] doing some exciting stuff.

“I was learning a lot about people, management, about teams, and my own development. I felt that I was, you know, growing personally as well as a scientist.”

Making home in the Manawatū

Gale and the rest of her team were transferred to Palmerston North in 2010.

“We moved into the Hopkirk, which I really, really love. I think it's one of the nicest places I've ever worked. Not all of the team transferred. I think in the end about 80% did and some came later.  It was a disruptive time and took to recover as a team.

“But I think everything's kind of really come together. I think we have produced 45 publications in the last three years. It's just, you know, reflective of how hard we have worked as a team and how well. The team is awesome and we wouldn’t have had the successes we have enjoyed over the last few years without them pulling together. Thank you, team; I appreciate each and every one of you.”

Gale Brightwell working on the light sterilisation project.

Gale has a 2.25 acre lifestyle property in the beautiful Pohangina Valley.

“For me coming from Derby City centre, it is paradise. There's a lovely gully at the back and the guy that had the house before was really into native planting, and my partner is, too. He's actually a trained gardener amongst many other things. So it's all been planted up with natives and the bird life is just fantastic.”

“We've got four alpacas, three dogs, and two cats, which are indoor cats, obviously, because of all the birds. And one of those has got three legs, a result of a bad leap off the bed and then cancer.”

Gale says having a job and home she loves means she is in a happy place. She says she is looking forward to the responsibility of mentoring researchers that comes with being a Principal Scientist.

“I have been thinking more about what I can do for other people, whether it's mentorship or coaching or helping write proposals, a little bit more of that nurturing I suppose. I find that rewarding.

“I am at a stage in my life when I actually have more experience and energy to do stuff. I wake up and look around and go, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that kind of stuff now. As you get older, you get a slightly different perspective and confidence. I feel I can contribute and help people.”

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