Parvez Alam is a docent in natural materials at Åbo Akademi University. He plays a central role in fifteen different advanced bioinspired projects. He is a biohacker. He is married and the father of two children. He is the founder of the world’s largest charity organisation within combat sports. He is an ex-professional skateboarder. He is an ex-punk rocker. He is a practising Muslim. He recently turned forty.

Text & Photo: Marcus Prest

The whale cranium has disappeared. This is weird. The cachalot whale cranium – which Parvez Alam’s colleague Derek Ohland a few years ago sawed off an animal that had strayed into shallow waters, beached and died – is the size of a small car. Alam and his colleague, Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan have tried to find the cranium in the basement of the zoological museum all morning.

On the floor in Professor Chinsamy-Turan’s office at the university campus in Cape Town, South Africa, there is now instead the cranium of a giraffe. This feels like something of an anticlimax. Parvez Alam had wanted to show me the whale cranium. He would also have wanted to study it further, since it is not the hardness of the whale’s cranium – the bone of a cachalot’s cranium is softer than that of a human cranium – but something in the structure of the bone that enables the whale to dive down to 3,000 metres. Parvez Alam is interested in exploring how its construction and pressure distribution are connected.

But now it is the giraffe cranium that Parvez Alam and Chinsamy-Turan are talking about. Parvez Alam cannot take the cranium with him back home to Turku, Finland, since it is, first of all, too unwieldy to transport, and secondly, it would take too long to acquire all of the permissions needed. Although it’s a matter of skeleton parts and not living material, the bureaucracy required to move a cranium from one continent to another is massive. What Alam can, however, use, is data from a scan of the giraffe cranium.
“What kind of scan, a CT scan?”  Chinsamy-Turan asks.

“Yes, CT is good. I can go down to 10 microns with my own gear,” Alam answers.
“Is that meaningful? Shouldn’t you try and keep it on a scale where you can see the larger patterns?”
”When I go down low enough, I can see various layers and whether the layers have different structures.”
“But you must at least stay on a scale where you can see how the tissues interact.”

The hypothesis about giraffes (which is relevant for dinosaur researcher Chinsamy-Turan’s work) is that long-necked dinosaurs and giraffes have directly related fight tactics which in turn relate to sexual selection. And that the aggressive behaviour displayed in the fight between two male giraffes could correspond to the way in which male dinosaurs fought each other. For Alam, the interesting features are the construction of the cranium and the composition of the skeleton – that is, the structure of the bone. The bone of the giraffe’s cranium does not consist of solid material; the inside of it looks rather like fused sugar.

“Look at these channels that go through the skull; these have not been studied before.”
Alam shows me a part of the cranium.
“And check this out: the same zipper-like binding between different skeleton parts as those that I’ve showed you on the piece of whale cranium I have in Turku.”


Till vänster: Parvez Alam, Chinsamy-Turan och en bit av ett giraffkranium. Mitten: Parvez Alam pekar på en dragkedjeliknande bindning i giraffkraniet. Till höger: Parvez Alam, Derek Ohland och det våta fortfarande illaluktande kraniet från en kaskelotval. Foto: Privat.

Left: Parvez Alam, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan and part of a giraffe cranium. Middle: Parvez Alam points at a zipper-like joint in the giraffe cranium. Right: Parvez Alam, Derek Ohland and the wet, still stinking, cranium of a cachalot whale. Photo: Private.


From a material technological perspective it is interesting that the giraffe skull is light, while it also seems to exhibit great durability; male giraffes use their skulls like sledgehammers in their fights.
“This kind of meringue-like structure, which is not solid, has proven to be good at dispersing the energy from impacts, but it’s not so good at withstanding static strain and continuous wear.”

* * *

PARVEZ ALAM is a bioscientist specialising in biomimetics and natural materials science. He is a docent at Åbo Akademi University. During his visit to Cape Town he collaborates with Professor Chinsamy-Turan since she is a leading expert on pre-historical organisms, specialising in dinosaurs and their bone structures.

In Cape Town and South Africa Alam also does biosampling: he goes out into nature looking for organisms and biomaterials with interesting characteristics. In his office and the lab in Turku Alam analyses what the materials consist of and based on data from the analyses he makes digital models of the materials’ hierarchical structures at molecular level and above. Some materials display characteristics and opportunities which make them of interest for synthetic production – not for making exact copies of the material, but for imitating its characteristics.

One of the basic objectives of Parvez Alam’s research is an attempt to identify green, sustainable processes for the manufacture of high-performance materials. The three main areas in his research are materials science, biomedicine and process technology.

* * *

HAVING talked to Professor Chinsamy-Turan we go for a walk. We walk through the university campus at the foot of Table Mountain. Large, grey trees line the footpath – Parvez Alam feels their trunks; he doesn’t know what kind of trees they are, and neither do I.

Parvez Alam recently turned forty. He is friendly but also somewhat watchful and he walks in a self-confident, energetic style with a low centre of gravity; in addition to biosciences, combat sports are his great passion. Before he got into research and combat sports, punk music and skateboarding dominated his life. He played in a number of punk bands in his previous home country, England. As a skateboarder he had sponsor contracts and was ranked among the top 10 in Britain in the vert ramp and concrete parks.

Why did you become a scientist and how did you come to specialise in bioscience and biomimetics?
“Oh, you go straight for the difficult questions. Let me answer why I work within biomimetics and bioscience: it’s one of my great loves, my passion and my great interest.”

“But if we look at science instead, as well as being characterised by fundamental research, which is based on curiosity and the wish to understand, science has its roots in industry. When I’ve worked on the industrial side, it’s been in order to earn money for my family. So: the need to earn money is part of the answer to the question of why I have chosen to work within science. I’ve worked directly in the industrial sector, but most of what I did before that at universities, including Åbo Akademi, was connected to industry in one way or another.”

“But as things got difficult with getting funding for the paper-converting projects that I was involved in at Åbo Akademi, I went back to my passion, to what I had started studying when I first came to university twenty years ago – that is, the biosciences. I suppose that for your own sake you must do what makes you happy, if you can.”

“Being a scientist is meaningful; it’s an ideal. So in 2012 I applied for a grant from the foundation Ella och George Ehrnrooths stiftelse in order to study the molecular characteristics of cobwebs. I got 9,000 euros – I took the money and since I was entering something that I loved to do, I went wild. Since then I have pushed on. I’ve never had as many students as I have now and I’ve never published as much, either.”

Since 2013 Alam has had 18 articles published in scientific journals and 12 more are waiting to be accepted.
“Where I’ve got to now, within biosciences, is a place where I can bring together my former experiences and the knowledge I’ve gathered over the years. Paper converting and materials technology have, for example, taught me a lot about fluid mechanics – which is very useful for me just now.”

“Within biomimetics and bioscience I learn something new every day. I also learn to appreciate the world. And my mode of working gives me quite a few close-to-death experiences. Particularly when encountering snakes, venomous octopuses and other marine animals that you come across in the course of gathering materials.”

What does your family think of that?
“Of course they’re not always all that enthusiastic about that side of things. But my wife understands this aspect of my character. I seem to have a problematic relationship to adrenalin. I broke my neck and was temporarily paralysed when I was skateboarding, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed me down. I think I get a kind of natural high when things are a bit dangerous.”

* * *

WHAT IS called called the Second Scientific Revolution (and regarded as having taken place between Nicolaus Copernicus’ publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and Isaac Newton’s publication of Principia in 1687) was, according to the historian of science Richard Holmes, characterised by a common ideal of an intensive, even reckless, personal engagement for the sake of making scientific discoveries. During my two years of sporadic contact with Parvez Alam I have often come to think of Holmes’ descriptions and stories of these strenuous journeys into previously unknown territories. In his hunt for insects, plants and other organisms Alam goes on long expeditions for many months in the Indonesian jungle, travels over vast areas of East Africa and seems unconcerned with his own comfort and often also apparently unconcerned about his own safety. He says that it looks and sounds more dangerous than it actually is.

He also expresses something that on the surface sounds like fatalism (“when you meet your destiny, there’s nothing to be done”), but when talking with him in more detail, I realise that his attitude is about taking well-judged risks, analysing which problems he is likely to encounter and how he can overcome them, and deciding whether the endeavour is worth the risk. If the answer is yes and things go wrong despite all preparations and planned actions – then they go wrong.

During the expeditions it is not only animals, particularly poisonous ones, which might cause surprises – Alam has also fallen victim to jungle diseases and parasites in the few years that he has been active as a field bioscientist. However, humans have proven to be the most dangerous creatures. Alam and his various groups have on several occasions been the target of aggression; sometimes he has even been involved in fights. At times it is Parvez Alam’s ethnicity that triggers aggression. On other occasions, it is pure opportunism on the part of the attackers.

“There are two things that I believe we as humans can’t control to any great extent. One is that we are born. The other is when we will die. Of course there are meaningless ways of dying; carelessness, thoughtlessness and so on. People who look down at their mobile phones while walking or driving take far greater risks than I do. But if you’ve done everything you’re supposed to correctly and you still meet your destiny, they you’ll just have to accept it.”

* * *

HIS PASSION FOR combat sports has also brought him into interesting situations – within the organisation Fighting for Lives Parvez has come into contact with two gentlemen who are involved in the gangs in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town. He has tried to organise an interview with them for me. These two men are former gang members who have been impressed by Fighting for Lives, an NGO of which Parvez Alam is the driving force. Like this organisation, they work with teaching children and young people outside the gangs to defend themselves against criminality. Parvez, for his part, is fascinated by the knife-fighting techniques used by the gangs on Cape Flats.

He has asked me to put on a thick jacket, so I’m wearing a leather coat despite the night being warm. This is because the two gentlemen, who remain nameless, in all friendliness stabbed him twice last time he met them – partly because they were demonstrating knife training and partly as an initiation rite. They persist in training with sharp blades, which more or less inevitably means that at least one of the parties will bleed. Parvez demonstrates techniques for me; he shows how the stabs are delivered at close range using the body as the centre of gravity, their intimate proximity resembling the right and left hooks and uppercuts of boxing.

“They’re good guys; they’ll stand by you until the end – but they’re also a bit moody and easily excited, so don’t ask them too much about tactics and techniques. Try sticking to social issues, questions about the history of the area, things like that,” Parvez advises me.
“They always carry knives, and if you ask them about technique, they’ll want to give you a demonstration of how they do it.”

Thus the leather jacket. We are heading to a place in Cape Flats which functions as a demilitarised zone between rival gangs. I’m thinking of techniques we learnt in passing in the army for blocking and taking the knife off an attacker. They don’t seem useful. I’m also thinking of my time running the 400 metres. That feels much more relevant. These and other thoughts run through my head as we walk. But then the two gentlemen withdraw from the interview – they send a text message to let us know. They say that they are doing so partly because they don’t want to be photographed and partly because there is unrest in the area at the moment; a person was killed last night in one of a series of xenophobic murders and attacks that have spread like a plague through South Africa during the past month. The atmosphere in the area is tense and it might be dangerous for somebody who is conspicuously white to be there.

Parvez tries to coax them into a new meeting, but that, too, comes to nothing. There is no point in going, without a clear plan, to Cape Flats in the dark, just to have a look.

* * *

SOMEHOW the association Fighting for Lives, which started when Parvez Alam and a small group of combat sport fans in Turku arranged events to collect funds for street children, has grown into the world’s largest organisation in combat sports for street children. The organisation gathers resources for clinics, has built a school for street children in Kenya, takes children on excursions, provides them with food and clean water and teaches them combat sports. Combat sports give the children a feeling of physical integrity that they have never experienced, having slept, perhaps, under a bridge for the last five years; and the sport provides them with an opportunity to defend themselves against adults who often try to abuse them sexually. At the moment the organisation is active in Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana and Malaysia. The film star Cecep Arif Rahman, who features in Raid  2 and plays a role in the new Star Wars film participates in the activities of Fighting for Lives.

Parvez began his charity work in the field of combat sports by teaching groups in his own children’s primary school. First he taught them what he knew; that is, various types of East Asian knife-based fighting methods. Then he realised that this was perhaps not the best thing to teach to primary school children, so he turned instead to the Brazilian combat sport capoeira, which contains quite a lot of acrobatic dance elements and is thus fun for children. Since then, Parvez has learnt to combine a number of various combat styles. He and his Fighting for Lives troupe often teach street children self-preservation tactics under the name of Raw Combat.

* * *

PARVEZ ALAM’S parents originally came from Bangladesh. They moved to England in the 1960s. Parvez was born in 1975 in Dorchester, Dorset. He tells me about his childhood while we walk along the dark streets. He does not want me to write much about it. He wants me to avoid the adjectives that spontaneously come to me when I try to succinctly describe his childhood in a sentence that is not too revealing, but sufficiently suggestive. Parvez Alam’s childhood was, to a large extent, characterised by the fact that he was the only one in the neighbourhood with an Asian ethnic background. He learnt to fight. He got deeply involved with the underworld – which became his home for a few years. His situation did not look good.

One way of freeing himself from that situation was skateboarding. He trained a lot. He also got help from friends who were Muslims. Their Muslim faith helped them to control themselves and maintain their dignity in difficult circumstances. At the age of 19, Parvez had a contract as a professional skateboarder representing Great Britain. He was at a warm-up event for a competition in Northampton: as the participants were doing their trial runs on the ramp, one misread the situation and left his board in the way of Parvez who at that moment was in the air above the ramp. Parvez crashed into the board, and fell five or six metres, landing on his neck, prolapsing two cervical discs and exploding one. He was paralysed from the neck down.

The surgeons who operated on him happened to be among the best neurosurgeons in Europe. Parvez would have been permanently paralysed had they not tried a method which was experimental at that point and involved taking material from his hip bone and connecting it with his vertebrae by operating through a cut in his throat. After lying for two weeks in hospital he could not take it any more. Rising from his bed, he walked out of the ward and into the city without letting the staff know. He didn’t know how to take the support collar off.

Skateboarding was his only plan before the accident; after the accident he continued skateboarding but also took up studying again. He was admitted to a college where he read biosciences – and received the highest grades in all the exams. Due to very weighty family reasons he missed his last examination and was expelled before graduating. He changed to another college and entered onto a course in building and materials technology. His old college phoned up when they realised they had expelled one of their top students. They wanted to offer him the opportunity to return. Parvez told them to go to hell. He completed his studies and started working.

“While finishing my doctoral thesis I suddenly realised how lucky I had been in having that team of surgeons operate on me. Otherwise I would be paralysed now. And I also realised how badly I’d behaved by just walking out without thanking those who had saved me. I dedicated my thesis to the surgeon who had led my operation team. I travelled to the hospital and gave him the thesis personally. We had a good long conversation.”

* * *

BIOSAMPLING. In the morning we drive out toward the Cape Point National Park but avoid the official entrances. We find a place right by the sea. Out on the point we see penguins gathered on the beach. This time Parvez is not looking for anything in particular. He just wants to see what he might find. We take off our shoes. In front of us the Atlantic is breaking against the cliffs in foamy waves. Parvez immediately identifies a number of organisms on the cliffs.

At the moment Parvez Alam is leading or participating in 15 different projects within the natural sciences. All 15 projects are in various phases of development. Some of them are at an advanced stage while others have just commenced or are waiting for the time, money and right circumstances to combine in order to be activated again.

One of the ideas he is working on is related to coastal environments and is inspired by corals and sponges. Corals are animals with soft bodies and organs that produce a skeleton of biominerals as a protective shield against its surroundings. Sponges are similar to corals, but they create spicules of glass which form a defence against predators, as well as the pressure of living underwater, and this enables them to anchor onto the sea bottom. The spicules provide the organism with a structural stability and the ability to fasten onto stones.
“I have a third article within this project which has been published in the journal Composites Part A.”

One of the reasons why Parvez is interested in these organisms is that a problem with green engineering is that it becomes less green when it is applied on an industrial scale. Achieving the specific characteristics of the material to be produced requires the use of energy and chemicals. What Parvez has explored is the production of natural fibres and natural fibre composites – and how materials can be fastened to the composite matrix. Corals and sponges strengthen and stiffen their bodies by using silica, calcium carbonate and proteins. Silica and calcium carbonate exist everywhere; they are among nature’s most common building blocks. No harmful effects are associated with either of these materials.

“Somehow corals and sponges manage to create these materials at room temperature and in sea temperatures. My question is why we shouldn’t be able to copy this process,” Parvez shouts over the noise of the waves.

Preliminary data from experiments conducted by Parvez’s natural fibre/composite group show the following: By using a specific amino-acid for making a model of the crystallisation and a model of how calcium carbonate grows on natural fibres, they achieve a one hundred per cent improvement of the durability of the composite in question. And this is, literally, only the beginning. This is one of the numerous projects that Parvez has applied for funding for over many years – with no great success. His basic assumption is that nature has organised things in the most appropriate way, and what we need to do is find ways of decoding its processes. And these processes are totally green, in the concept’s fundamental sense: they do not require any extra added energy and the chemicals they use are harmless minerals.

Parvez’s group in the natural fibre project has achieved good results. They have managed to grow glass on natural fibres by using unicellular organisms – without adding any extra energy. They have simply let the organism do its job. Nobody else on the planet has so far succeeded in doing this. The basic problem with other methods for transferring glass onto natural fibres is that glass melts at 1,500 degrees Celsius. The fibres will have decomposed long before that temperature is reached. But Parvez’s group has overcome this problem.

The three basic characteristics achieved by growing natural glass onto natural fibres are increased strength, stiffness, and topographical features which enable it to fasten onto other materials. The process Parvez’s group has developed is biologically degradable from its raw materials to the final product. The material created can be used in various types of green high-performing composite materials, purposes for which conventional fibre glass and carbon fibre – two materials which are not environmentally friendly, particularly not fibre glass – are currently used.

Another of Parvez’s fifteen project areas which are connected to coastal and marine organisms is bioadhesives. Bioadhesives are of interest in wound healing, but also within materials science in order to attach different materials to each other. To illustrate this he tries to pull a limpet off a cliff. To no avail. He tries again, very carefully, with another limpet before it has time to react to his presence. No success this time, either. He pulls with all his strength – to no effect. He tries to pry it loose with a sharp stone. The limpet stays put.

“As you can see, bioadhesives are potent. On top of that, these geezers cling to the surface when they sense somebody is near them. It’s called Stefan Adhesion; a combination of clinging ability and slime. And this slime is simply made up of polysaccharides – in other words, nothing disgusting.”
He tries to pry the limpet loose again.
“I’m not giving up until I get one of these loose.”

He doesn’t manage to loosen any of them. Eventually he finds a floating limpet in a puddle. Triumphantly he picks it up. We move on along the cliffs and find a small pool, a place where sea water has gathered between the boulders. Small fish are swimming in the clear water. Various types of algae are growing on the stones and along the bottom. Parvez lays down on one of the boulders and tries to see underneath it. He exclaims happily:

“Come over here and take a look at this guy!”
When I lie down flat on my stomach, support myself against a cliff wall on the opposite side and lower my head towards the water I can see a bright lilac coloured sea urchin.

“Don’t touch it,” Parvez shouts.
He runs to get a few sticks to use for lifting out the urchin. On the second try he manages to get it out of the pool. He lays it down on the cliff in front of us and bends down on his knees to study it.
“That was an amazing piece of luck, wasn’t it? But you must be careful – some of these are venomous.”
He touches it with his bare hand, but quickly pulls back.



“There you go – I just touched it lightly, but that was enough. Some of these have, as I say, quite a potent neurotoxin in them.”
He continues studying the urchin, happy as larry, although his left hand is slowly numbing.

“I don’t know what to do with this one. I didn’t come here to get this chap specifically, so I don’t feel like taking it out, because then it’ll die. I’ll look at it for a while and then put it back where it was, minding its own business.”

* * *

BACK AT the university Parvez takes out his laptop, which he calls The Beast. It is powerful enough for running advanced molecular simulations. He is going to show me what the molecular structure of cobwebs looks like. Cobweb research was the first area in which he was given a grant.

Cobweb research can be used, among other things, to make wound-healing material, to make composites for biomedical use based on the molecular structure of cobwebs, and for other types of composites for use in almost any area.
The third article that Alam’s group published on cobwebs was submitted directly after a research group in Panama had published an article in Nature Scientific Reports which demonstrated that cobwebs actually move towards insects flying in, and take hold of them.

The group showed that an electric charge in the insect’s body triggers the web, which is pulled towards the insect when it is close enough.
“We weren’t even aware that these people in Panama existed or that they worked on something similar. Our study differs from theirs in that our work shows how this functions at the molecular level. The molecules in the web organise themselves so that the cobweb stiffens and becomes immensely strong because of the electric charge carried by the approaching insect. This is why the web is not damaged when the insect hits it. When looking at a cobweb in slow motion it looks like it’s a living organism.”

Parvez’s group carried out its study using Molecular Dynamic Simulation (MDS), which is based on the principles for how the atoms in individual molecules behave when exposed to various types of influence, primarily electrostatic forces.
The simulation showed that when the cobweb molecules are exposed to an electric charge, they stretch themselves out because of the electric chain reaction.

“Our hypothesis concerning the durability of cobwebs pertains to this stretching effect. We checked out beta sheets, that is, organised secondary structures that cause crystals to form in biopolymers. We checked the polyalanine segments that form the beta sheets. We checked the hydrogen connections which are electrostatic secondary forces – in cobwebs large numbers of these emerge.”

There are seven different types of cobweb. The flagelliform type is a gluey web which forms the radial web. It has a high yield stress and is very glutinous. Parvez’s group identified the amino-acids that render this web type gluey and, based on that data, they constructed a biological adhesive for wound healing by introducing the material with bacteriological nanocrystals.
“By controlling the amino-acids we can adjust the characteristics of the composite adhesive.”

In cooperation with a colleague at the University of Turku Parvez is working on a project which aims at connecting two different types of cobweb in order to combine the stiff qualities with the adhesive qualities – this would be a material that does not exist in nature. This kind of bioscience is called synthetic biology. Here, too, the purpose would be to construct improved biomaterial for the healing of wounds.

Currently Parvez himself is trying to understand the SCD elements in cobwebs. SCD stands for semi-crystalline domains. Since the 1970s five scientific studies have been published, all of which are based on the hypothesis that the SCDs are crucial for the durability of cobwebs.

“The various kinds of cobwebs are classified into three different durability types: hard, soft and medium-hard.”
“As far as I know nobody has ever seriously studied how these SCDs are formed in cobwebs. I have a few hypotheses that I’m exploring. The first one is that SCD is formed in the connection between the crystals. The crystals influence the amorphous materials so that they turn into crystals and vice versa.”
“My second theory is that if the crystals shear over each other, SCD is formed.”
“It’s this third phase of a cobweb that gives it its huge capacity to absorb energy.”

* * *

WHEN PARVEZ Alam travels, he always takes with him his powerful laptop, and when going to third-world countries he also brings along another laptop so that students can use both his computers.
“What they don’t have a lot of in the third world is good computers.”

According to him travelling to different places in the world, and above all outside of the Western world, gives perspectives that are necessary for a scientist. In other cultures one encounters different ways of thinking, and very different conditions for both everyday life and research. Different points of departure create alternative approaches to problems.

“I believe that one way of opening your eyes in your job as a scientist is to travel, to not just stay in Finland and attend a conference every now and then. I believe you develop your creativity by working in different cultures.”

“It’s not about any spiritual journey, although it might include that, and for me it has included that aspect, too. It’s about there being such an enormous amount of uncommitted and unused talent waiting to be discovered. What I meant when I said that you encounter different ways of thinking, is that scientists in the third world are often very free in their thinking and not committed to certain structures in the way we are. Of course, they have all kinds of problems, both in their organisations and in the lack of material and equipment, but they often have an open curiosity, thanks to which they might find very interesting and unexpected solutions within basic research, in discovering new areas, applications and in improvising when it comes to equipment and processes. They often find that science is fun.”

Has your Muslim faith ever created an obstacle for you as a scientist?
“Islam has never been a problem for me as a scientist. However, what is a big problem is industrially-oriented thinking; the subordination of science to money, which in detail regulates what we should do research on.”

“There are a number of prejudices and perceptions concerning what religiosity must entail. Such as, for instance, that you cannot believe in evolution if you’re religious or Muslim. Evolution is an area where everybody thinks they’re experts. And there is a fundamental view of the role of evolution in the history of science. When people have read something by Charles Darwin they think they’ve reached point zero. They know nothing of what was going on much earlier. As if people hadn’t been able to think and make observations before that. And nobody seems to know philosophers such as Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) who described human development phase by phase and hypothesised that humans originated from apes, or Al Jahiz (776–868) who actually sketched natural selection in a way similar to Darwin’s theory a thousand years before Darwin.”

“But speaking at a more general level, the lack of a philosophical background among natural scientists results in there being many researchers who are simply not able to think outside of the box, since they aren’t aware that they are in that box. To put it another way, they haven’t realised that their thinking, within science, is culturally limited to the society they live in and to their social circles. They are unable to see that there are questions and methods that they can’t even consider, since the framework for their thinking is too narrowly defined and, furthermore, they haven’t noticed that there is a framework in the first place.”

* * *

WE FINISH OFF the day by going into the countryside outside of Cape Town to see if we can find any venomous spiders. On the slopes scorched by forest fires Parvez pokes cobwebs and turns over decayed tree trunks. He finds no spiders. Nor any snakes. But he does find the skeleton of a wildcat. The skeleton fascinates him; he thinks we have been extremely lucky in finding it. He takes the cranium home with him.


Parvez Alam testing a cobweb, hoping to find an interesting spider.

Parvez Alam testing a cobweb, hoping to find an interesting spider.

Parvez Alam

  • 1975    Born in Dorchester, Dorset, England.
  • 1994    De Montfort University (biomedicine). Misses his last exam and does not complete his degree.
  • 1996    Reaches the final in the English skateboarding championships in Northampton. Breaks his neck and is totally paralysed.
    Recovers entirely after expert surgery.
  • 1996    Bachelor’s Honours programme at the University of Bath (materials science).
  • 1998    Works within product development at the building material company BPB Gypsum in East Leake Nottingham.
  • 2004    Completes his doctoral degree in building engineering at the University of Bath.
  • 2004    Having met his future wife Catharina in England, he moves with her to Finland. On his first day in Turku he is employed
    within paper converting at Åbo Akademi University.
  • 2012    Applies for and receives a grant from the foundation Ella och Georg Ehrnrooths stiftelse. Returns to biosciences.