James Urban forskar om sockermolekyler

Studying sugars using a computer as a tool


James Urban is conducting research into sugar molecules. Unlike many of his research colleagues at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology, he doesn’t experiment in the lab but programs his computer and analyses the results there.

The Bojar Lab research team was what attracted James to the University of Gothenburg. 

-I looked at a lot of universities before I found the specialisation that interested me.  

The research team is at the forefront of glycobiology and uses machine learning and bioinformatics. The Bojar Lab investigates glycans, sugar molecules found on the surface of proteins.  

James applied for and was awarded a doctoral studentship at Bojar Lab. He’d never been to Sweden before when he left the United Kingdom for Gothenburg in February 2022.  

- Covid was still a thing at the time. It was dark and cold, and some people were still wearing face masks.  But all those things pushed me to integrate and get to know the Swedes.

James applied for a course on SFI, Swedish for Immigrants, and started going to the gym so that he could practise his Swedish.  He now has a wide network of contacts with both Swedish and international students and researchers. 

- I’ve made lots of new friends. We meet up for coffee or beer, play games, watch films and have dinner at each other’s homes.

He’s pleased that the Bojar Lab is a small research team made up of five people. That makes it all very personal, and they all know each other well.  

Like his supervisor, James works solely on computer. For his job, he needs data from the samples his colleagues have examined using mass spectrometry in the lab. The results indicate which sugar molecules are present in the samples. After that, it’s James’s job to use his computer for further tracing. 

- The information has to be interpreted, and I write computer software that can examine this. It’s a pretty complex and time-consuming task. 

All kinds of sugar molecules 

There are lots of sugars, and more complex versions of sugar than many people realise. With his thesis, James is hoping to find links between the structure and function of different sugars and discover fascinating but barely noticeable differences. 

- There are a few really, really long polysaccharides with extremely long repetitive but simple chains. But we’re not as interested in them as we are in some of the smaller, more complex molecules. 

Sugars are important for all species and their life processes: this is just as true for a tiny virus as it is for an enormous blue whale. Sugars are important for cells, proteins and interactions and biological processes in the body. James and his research colleagues have studied the sugars in the breast milk of various animals. 

- It’s really interesting to see the huge differences between the sugars in the breast milk of a human versus a dolphin or a rhino, for example, says James. 

Choosing between medicine and programming 

As a teenager, James was torn between medicine and programming. He decided to go with the latter, and he ended up with a degree in biotechnology from Imperial College London. James’s parents are Italian and he has an EU passport, so applying to study in Sweden was no problem for him. He’s used to living abroad, too. His family moved to Zurich in Switzerland when he was nine. They lived there for four years, and James learned German.  

He now lives in Gothenburg and feels very much at home in the city and with his research at the University of Gothenburg. 

- I learn new things on so many different levels every day, and I really enjoy it, says James. 

James Urban is conducting research into sugar molecules.
James Urban

Is: A doctoral student studying biophysics at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology. 

Born: He grew up in Reading, a town west of London. 

Age: 24. 

Interests: Running, gym, badminton. He also learned to knit recently.  

Strange but true: Besides his native English, James speaks Italian, Swiss German and now quite a bit of Swedish as well.