Professor Mark Sansom becomes new Head of Department
The Department has welcomed Professor Mark Sansom as its new Head.
New and retiring head: Professor Mark Sansom (right) together with Professor Kim Nasmyth (left) at the departmental reception (Click to enlarge)
Professor Sansom takes the reins from Professor Kim Nasmyth and will head the department for the next 5 years. His appointment comes shortly after taking up the David Phillips Chair of Molecular Biophysics at the University.
The change in Head of Department was marked by a reception for staff on May 6. Professor Nasmyth, reflecting on his time in the post, said that it was a 'great privilege' to have been Head and that he was looking forward to working with Professor Sansom.
In the 20 years that Professor Sansom has been in the department, he has built up a research programme that has developed into the grouping now known as the Structural Bioinformatics and Computational Biochemistry unit. The groups uses computational techniques to explore the structure and function of membrane proteins. Professor Sansom will continue to lead the unit whilst Head of Department.
The coming year will see considerable changes in group leaders in the department as some move away and new appointments come in. Professor Sansom recognises that this will be an opportunity to think afresh about where the department is going and to build on its strengths.
'What's special about the department is that it embraces such a wide field of endeavours, from the molecular and biophysical on one side, to the cell biology on the other'
'With Kim, the department has been very successful in putting research at the centre of the departmental agenda. We now have a very strong field in cell and chromosomal biology. With the changes in the department, the next challenge is to refresh and refocus the more biophysical and structural aspects of the department. It's timely because it's no longer sufficient to say we have expertise from the point of view of methodologies. I think we have to find a clear biological theme that uses biophysical and structural methods.'
In his own field of membrane proteins, he can see that there is potential for the collection of departmental groups working on these proteins to help to close the big gap between structures and genes - a key aim for this clinically important group of proteins.
Another way in which Professor Sansom suggests that the department could 'refresh and refocus' is by bringing researchers together around key biomedical challenges. 'Working as an independent principal investigator on a stand-alone problem, it's difficult nowadays to compete internationally,' he explains. 'A shared interest provides intellectual focus and support.'
He adds that although this may not fit everybody, there is a more general need to focus on what the department is doing in terms of the biology and also to provide the infrastructural support for people to do research in tougher times. Within the department there are extensive shared facilities and links with other departments are already developing.
Emphasising the unique position that Biochemistry occupies within the University, Professor Sansom sees potential for the department to build on this. 'On the one hand we can look towards the more biomedical sciences,' he says, 'and on the other, we also have strong links with Biological Physics and run a joint graduate programme with Chemical Biology. We could play a translational role within the University taking new physical and chemical approaches and helping to translate them into being used in a biomedical context.'
As well as highlighting development of research within the department, Professor Sansom recognises the importance of delivering training, both undergraduate and postgraduate. 'That's what Universities are for. We don't do our research in private. We do our research and we pass that on to the next generation. Research informs undergraduate teaching, but undergraduate teaching also feeds into research, particularly given our 4-year undergraduate programme.'
The next few years will be a time of change for postgraduate training as it continues to move away from individual supervisors to more formally organised doctoral training programmes. Professor Sansom is confident that the department, which hosts a wide range of PhD programmes, is well positioned to embrace many of these changes. 'Biochemistry,' he comments, 'is going to take a leading role within the university.'
In summing up what he believes is the department's standing within UK science, Professor Sansom highlights its breadth and capabilities. 'What's special about the department is that it embraces such a wide field of endeavours, from the molecular and biophysical on one side, to the cell biology on the other. To have all that expertise within a single building and therefore to be able to reflect that in our teaching is rather special, and that's what we should build on.'
He admits that it is a challenging time to take up the post but is excited about it. 'The department is a crossing point - between the biophysical and biomedical sciences on the research side, and between teaching and research within the University. Sitting at that juncture is an interesting place to be. Both the challenge and enjoyment of the job is going to be trying to manage that.'