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He is a long way from his bomb disposal days

December 13, 2017
Parnham relaxes in the doorway of the nuclear magnetic resonance imaging area at MUSC, where his only enemies are the diseases he researches — and the threat of "quenching." Photos by Sarah Pack

What do you get when you bring a former British aircraft engineer and bomb disposal expert into a research laboratory with potentially dangerous devices? In the case of Stuart Parnham, a perfect fit.  

“In the U.K. military, we’re trained to do everything. Anything that goes bang or makes anything go bang, that’s your job. That kind of goes hand in hand with running a facility like this. I’m always having to fix things,” Parnham said.

The things he’s maintaining these days are three nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy devices at the Medical University of South Carolina. “They’re my babies,” he said. “Each one behaves differently.”

He’s like a proud father — one with a doctorate in biochemistry and structural biology from the University of Leicester in England. And this NMR director never forgets his own father’s advice. 

“He always said, 'If you don’t have the tool for the job, you make one.' That’s generally what I do. If somebody comes to me with a problem, it’s the problems I love. They’ll come to us, and I’ll make an experiment and think of what tools I have that I can use.”

 nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy devices
The three NMR spectroscopers at MUSC and others at Hollings Marine Lab help fight cancer, HIV and more.

His job is to care for the giant magnets, conduct complex research and work with other scientists who need the NMR devices to help with their work. The devices can create 3-D images of proteins linked to diseases. That gives researchers a better idea of what it might take to cure them.

“The way I describe it is, the protein is your lock in your door, and you want to get behind the door, but you don’t have a key,” Parnham said. “So you have to build a key that fits only that lock. In this case, the lock is the protein, and the key is the drug.”

For the former Royal Air Force officer who had to change careers due to injuries, the NMR work is right in his comfort zone. “I do like doing protein structures,” Parnham said. “I have a lot of fun doing that. It’s the way my brain’s wired.”

But he hasn’t forgotten the carefully honed instinct for detecting trouble he developed in the military. The NMR devices aren’t exactly explosive, but they can cause big problems. “I try not to use the Q word too much, which is quench. I don’t use it around my babies. Don’t want them quenching.”

Quenching, for this kind of baby, is a very bad thing. “Quench means something goes catastrophically wrong inside,” Parnham said.

That’s never happened on Parnham’s watch. He’s happy to enjoy a relatively calm life, one geared toward repairing lives, not risking his own as he did during his 16 years in the Royal Air Force. 

“Structural biology is very much the way forward,” Parnham says. “We do fantastic research here, absolutely phenomenal.”

About the Author

Helen Adams