Royal Society Fellowship honour for Professor Judy Armitage
With more than 25 years devoted to the study of bacteria and bacterial motility, Professor Judy Armitage’s contribution to the field has been recognised with her election as one of 2013’s Royal Society Fellows.
The recognition is particularly satisfying, she says, as a University Lecturer. It demonstrates ‘that you can make it as a woman and from the ranks.’
Following undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCL, Judy was awarded a Lister Fellowship that enabled her to pursue her interest in bacterial motility. She moved to Oxford in 1985 where she took up a University Lectureship at St Hilda’s College, and was awarded the title of professor in 1996, subsequently moving to Merton College.
One of her most significant contributions to the field has been the establishment in 2006 of the Oxford Centre for Integrative Systems Biology (OCISB) which she runs as Director. This virtual centre aims to develop interdisciplinary bioscience, promoting interactions between a diverse range of departments, with a focus on bacterial and eukaryotic sensory signalling networks.
OCISB was pump-primed with a grant from the BBSRC and has been very successful. ‘It’s built much more interdisciplinary bioscience interactions in South Parks Road,’ she comments, adding that the initiative has particularly helped to lower the threshold for interaction between departments and divisions.
The BBSRC funding has enabled experimental and theoretical researchers to work together on common biological problems. It has also provided support for a seminar series and has been complemented by a Systems Biology DPhil programme.
Judy has always been fascinated by bacteria and the sophisticated ways in which they sense and respond to the external world. Her research focuses on how bacteria swim using flagella and what controls this. Given the vast diversity of bacterial species, she is interested in identifying which pathways are conserved across different species and which are finely tuned to a particular species’ niche.
Her commitment to OCISB reflects the importance she places on an interdisciplinary approach in her own research. ‘I couldn’t do without the physicists and mathematicians,’ she says. ‘The physicists have an understanding of single-molecule optics to look at flagella movement, the mathematicians allow us to model biochemical data to understand complex pathways. My collaborations have taken the research to a new height which couldn’t otherwise have been achieved.’
During her research career to date, she has supervised 34 graduate students, several of whom have moved into academic chairs elsewhere. She acknowledges the huge role that students have played, particularly those who were Biochemistry undergraduates and who did their Part2 research projects with her. ‘Without these outstanding students,’ she adds, ‘I couldn’t have done the work.’
Although she was released from college tutorial teaching when she became Director of the OCISB, she continues to play a role in departmental teaching by giving lectures. She says that she benefits from this interaction with students, especially prospective Part2 students.
Outside work, Judy’s family life has revolved around her husband and two daughters, both of whom have pursued scientific careers. One daughter has followed in her footsteps and is finishing her Biochemistry studies in Oxford, including a Part2 research project with Mark Sansom (Judy admits that it was a slightly unnerving experience seeing her amongst the students she was lecturing). The other daughter is a psychologist.
The children were brought up in Oxford and the family were fortunate to have a nanny share arrangement which lasted into the school years. With her husband commuting to the University of Birmingham where he is a Professor of Neuroscience, the shared childcare was essential and worked very well.
Oxford University was well represented amongst the newly elected Royal Society Fellows this year. The achievements of six new Fellows at the University, including two women, were recognised. This reflects a much higher proportion overall of women Fellows than in previous years – 10 out of 54 UK and foreign appointments.