Department of Biochemistry University of Oxford Department of Biochemistry
University of Oxford
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Anaphase bridges in fission yeast cells
Whitby lab
Lactose permease represented using bending cylinders in Bendix software
Caroline Dahl, Sansom lab
Epithelial cells in C. elegans showing a seam cell that failed to undergo cytokinesis
Serena Ding, Woollard lab
Collage of Drosophila third instar larva optic lobe
Lu Yang, Davis lab
First year Biochemistry students at a practical class
Image showing the global movement of lipids in a model planar membrane
Matthieu Chavent, Sansom lab
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Alison Woollard to present the CHRISTMAS LECTURES®

The department will be put under the spotlight later this year when University Lecturer Alison Woollard takes to the floor to present the prestigious Royal Institution’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES®.

Alison will deliver a three-part series entitled ‘Life Fantastic’ in early December which will explore the frontiers of developmental biology and uncover the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism. The lectures will be filmed and then broadcast between Christmas and New Year on BBC Four.

She follows in the footsteps of world-famous scientists and science communicators such as David Attenborough, Carl Sagan and John Sulston, in a lecture series that has inspired adults and children alike since 1825.

Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution, said that she was especially pleased to have a woman presenting the series and absolutely delighted to have discovered an exciting new talent in Alison.

As a youngster, Alison was awarded a prize for achievement in biology that gave her the opportunity to attend the lectures. She is honoured to be returning as presenter rather than audience member.

“It’s really exciting to do something new like this,” she says with enthusiasm. “It’s energising, but a bit scary and daunting.”

The selection process began earlier in the year when the Royal Institution approached Alison and asked her to put together a three page proposal. She thought that would be the end of that, but they were so impressed that they came back to her asking her for an audition.

“A group came to the department and I ran through a short extract from my proposed plan using GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) and worms on a microscope to show how you can visualise proteins in living organisms.”

Enthusiastic about what they had heard, the Royal Institution asked Alison to flesh out her proposal in more detail. At the same time, Alison’s web presence – in particular videos made by AICR (the Association for International Cancer Research) featuring her work – was noted. 

The next she heard was that she had been selected. She was accompanying a group of students around the Sand Walk at Down House, an annual trip for biosciences undergraduates from Hertford College on finishing their Finals. “Everyone was trying to have a "big idea" just like Darwin would, and that’s when my phone rang... they were sworn to relative secrecy and we had celebratory tea and cakes,” she says with amusement.

Although no formal training is provided, Alison will be busy over the next few months with meetings and rehearsals to help her pitch the lectures to young people.

The visuals, she says, will be a key part of the series which is described as ‘demonstration-packed and fun-filled.’ For this she will have help from the Royal Institution who will also develop the accompanying on-line material with her and from Windfall Films who will produce the lectures for BBC Four.

“The challenge with anything biological is that it is microscopic,” she explains. “How do you demonstrate this to an audience?” She will be encouraged to be as creative as possible, using props as well as plenty of volunteers from the lab and the audience.

Alison’s talks will explore the mechanisms behind the transformation from egg to adult, what these tell us about the relationship between all creatures, and whether we can harness this knowledge to improve or even extend our own lives.

The first lecture, ‘Where do I come from?’, will look at how the trillion cells that ultimately make up our body know their place and function despite containing identical DNA.

In the second lecture, ‘Am I a mutant?’, Alison will explore how developmental processes are altered over evolutionary time to produce novel structures and, ultimately, new species, and the potential for genetically engineering humans. In the last lecture, ‘Could I live forever?’, she will talk about what controls the ageing process and whether we could ever halt it – and whether we would really want to.

One feature of Alison’s own research that she would like to bring across in the lectures is how work in other organisms can provide clues as to what is going on in humans.

“I’m hoping that this will be an opportunity for showing the contribution that model organisms make to bioscience and for emphasising the importance of basic research. I will bring in key breakthroughs that model organisms have made – for example, studying cell death in the nematode worm C.elegans has opened up a huge area as has studying cell division in yeast.”

Her enthusiasm for using model organisms to understand biological problems spans her entire career. She first became hooked on them during her PhD, when she worked on basic mechanisms of cell division using fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe under the now Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse.

She ‘turned to the worm’ (Caenorhabditis elegans) for her postdoctoral work, impressed by the ease with which multicellular development can be studied using this transparent and highly tractable organism, and has remained with it ever since. In her current work, she is trying to unpick the complex mechanisms by which cells become different from one another during development.

As a very energetic teacher, Alison hopes to open up the sometimes mysterious world of science to her audience. “Everyone has an inner scientist. The world of science is not an exclusive club that most people can't join. Everyone can feel the excitement of discovery when things are explained carefully enough.”

 

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