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Professor Garman to give the Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture

Scientists and the public alike will gather amongst the dinosaurs and dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on March 9 at an annual lecture in honour of one of the 20th century's outstanding scientists - Dorothy Hodgkin.

The occasion is the Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture which this year will be given by Professor Elspeth Garman from the Biochemistry Department. She follows a long line of eminent scientists who have given the lecture since the event was established in 1999.

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin working with sheets of perspex to build up 3D representations of proteins.
© Billett Potter

Dorothy Hodgkin pioneered the development of X-ray crystallography for studying the structure of proteins. She used the technique to decipher the structure of a number of important biological molecules including penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Her tremendous skill and insight were recognised by the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.

The memorial lecture was set up to celebrate these achievements. It is supported by Somerville College, where Dorothy was a student and fellow, the Oxford group of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, and the Museum of Natural History, the building where Dorothy pursued much of her research.

Past presentations have been given by scientists working in the structural biology field, as well as some of those researchers who worked with Dorothy Hodgkin or have a connection with her.

Professor Elspeth Garman

Professor Elspeth Garman

"I was very privileged to meet Dorothy Hodgkin and be in charge of looking after her at a meeting in Birkbeck College in the early nineties shortly before she died," says Professor Garman. "It was a meeting of the Biological Structures Group of the British Crystallography Association, and she was still very interested in what was going on. She was the founding vice-president of the Association of which I currently have the honour of being the President."

The day with Dorothy Hodgkin proved to be very illuminating. "I know that she would not approve of how we do experiments now. She felt that we weren't well educated crystallographers," says Professor Garman who has sympathy with this view.

"It's all automated. Computers have taken a huge amount of the burden of understanding. There used to be a crystallographer; now you can be a biologist who just uses crystallography. That's the main change philosophically - it's now a technique not a specialism."

She does however regard herself as a specialist - one contributing to improving techniques in the field. With a research background in physics she is well placed to do this. "My research aims to increase the information content from a single experiment, applying physics logic to try to improve the diffraction experiment."

Her move into the field of crystallography came about by chance when she was offered the opportunity to look after the University's new X-ray equipment for biological crystallography in 1987. She has never regretted the move and ended up staying in the field, carving a niche for herself.

Entitling her talk, 'Crystallography One Century AD (After Dorothy)' - 2010 being the hundredth anniversary of Dorothy Hodgkin's birth - Professor Garman will take the audience through the development of crystallographic techniques. "My plan for the lecture is to take the diffraction experiment, to track how Dorothy Hodgkin would have done it and then how we do it now."

Delighted that she has been chosen to give this year's lecture, Professor Garman regards it as recognition of the importance of work which aims to develop techniques that others can apply to solve biological structures. "I feel very honoured to be doing it. It's a big challenge and I hope I can rise to it."



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