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Radio Review: The Life Scientific - Chris Toumazou

20 October 2014
Appeared in BioNews 776

Professor Chris Toumazou had an unconventional route into science. The son of Greek Cypriot parents, as a child he often felt driven to swot up on science in an attempt to prove his smarts to doubting peers.

Yet, despite these efforts, the school he attended only offered CSE's (as opposed to more academic O-levels) and he was left unable to access higher education.

After a short period working in his father's Greek restaurant, Toumazou enrolled on a vocational electrician's course.

'I started to think about technology and engineering, even though I had no formal education in that area,' Toumazou explained. He excelled at the electronics component of the course, receiving a distinction.

This was a formative experience in his career, leading him to study for a Ordinary National Diploma in Engineering and further onto a degree course at Oxford Brookes University (then Oxford Polytechnic).

Toumazou's enormous enthusiasm for electronics and engineering comes across loud and clear. He stayed on at Oxford Brookes to complete a PhD in 1986 that was so productive his examiner told him: 'This isn't one PhD, it's two!'

His breakthrough came when he began thinking about analogue circuit design, at a time when digital was all the rage. 'Speech, sound, sight - these are analogue signals. Analogue circuits are the part of electronics that convert real world information to electrical,' says Toumazou. His contribution was to invent new types of circuits to drastically reduce the size of analogue components.

From this initial concept of using analogue to interface electronics with real-world signals Toumazou has gone on to create numerous innovative products, many addressing complex medical problems.

He has been directly involved in developments including cochlear implants for born-deaf children, a pancreas-mimicking device for type I diabetes patients and, more recently, a 'DNA-lab-on-a-microchip' able to rapidly diagnose genetic conditions.

This final invention won Toumazou the European Inventor of the Year Award 2014. Thanks to the chip's simplicity and speed, it has genuine potential as an easy-to-use genetic diagnostic.

Toumazou's remarkable success - he was Imperial College's youngest ever professor at age 33 - is in part attributable to his willingness to collaborate. This belief in cross-disciplinary work as being 'the best way to innovate' led to his involvement in setting up Imperial College's Institute of Biomedical Engineering. The Institute brings clinicians, physicists and engineers together to achieve common goals. Toumazou calls it a 'playground of innovation without the silos of traditional research'.

Like many who excel, Toumazou has a seemingly insatiable appetite for more success. 'That challenge to succeed has driven me,' he admits.

Although, necessarily, the programme only skimmed the surface of Toumazou's life and work, this episode of The Life Scientific was particularly insightful and thought-provoking.

Though it would be foolish to ignore Toumazou's obvious academic ability, his vocational background seems to have been vitally important in his career. His ability to repeatedly produce tangible solutions to real world problems dovetails nicely with the current push for translational research that does just that.

I hope science education policymakers were listening in.

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