OSB archive
OSB archive

A science star is born

Jonathan Wood

Meeting Alison Woollard over a coffee is a delight. It's clear she is a story teller. She is engaging, enthusiastic, chatty, fun, easy to relate to, has lovely turns of phrase and illustrates everything with great tales and examples. I thoroughly enjoy the conversation and my time with her.

But those are all incidental skills of a presenter. She also has a great story to tell: Where we all come from.

And that's surely why she's been chosen as this year's Royal Institution Christmas lecturer.

The Christmas Lectures are an institution in themselves. Broadcast annually since 1966 from the Royal Institution's tight, high-sided lecture theatre, they are a fixture in the TV schedule as soon as the turkey and present opening have finished and a cornerstone of science education and outreach in this country.

Started by Michael Faraday in the first part of the 19th century, the lectures have always been loaded with showpiece demo after demo to illuminate the latest in scientific understanding in an accessible way for children (and their parents).

Dr Alison Woollard is Dean, Fellow and Tutor in Biochemistry at Hertford College, and a University Lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, where her research looks at the nematode worm as a model system for understanding embryonic growth and development.

Her Christmas lectures on Life Fantastic will uncover the transformation through which a single cell becomes a complex organism. She will look at where we come from, what makes us, how we grow and how we age, but also how we might want to harness this knowledge and the questions it raises.

The lectures will bring in all sorts of subjects: covering some of the working of cells, developmental biology, how morphology changes over time, and evolution and the role of chance in shaping us as organisms.

So at Christmas time, when many people around the world will be celebrating a miracle birth, Alison will be explaining the amazing process by which a newly fertilised egg cell divides and grows. Or as she says: 'How cells in the growing embryo know what to do in the right place at the right time. How cells, all with the same DNA instructions, know to become liver cells, eye cells or toenail cells.

'It's all about interpreting those instructions,' she explains.

While it quickly becomes clear to me that she will make a tremendous presenter, when Alison first received an email inviting her to put herself forward for the Christmas lectures, her first reaction was to delete the email.

A few days later, she tells me, she retrieved the email from trash so she could at least leave it sitting there in her inbox. She then did nothing for a week. After a subsequent email chasing her, she did then draft a short proposal for the lectures and sent it off. She was surprised to get an audition. 'I'm still a novice,' she protests, though she admits that won't be the case come the New Year.

The Christmas lectures can draw anywhere between 1 and 4 million viewers, and is likely to be BBC Four's biggest show over the Christmas period.

'It's an enormous privilege,' says Alison. 'Other lecturers have had letters years later from scientists who say they were initially inspired by watching them.

'If my lectures are able to inspire any of the children in the lecture theatre or those at home, then job done!'

She suspects that the TV audience has a range of ages and interests, but doesn't believe that is a problem. 'The lectures need to be accessible to children and adults alike, and I don't see much difference. I think you can begin with basic ideas and go right up to the cutting edge, guiding people through and taking them with you.

'In my case, I have my 10 year old daughter at home to try stuff out on, and my mum at the other end of the spectrum.'

She is keen to use her set of lectures to go beyond explaining the pure science, and also explore some of the issues and ethical dilemmas it can raise.

'Part of my area of science includes new cell-based medicine and genome sequencing,' Alison says. 'These technical advances are important and raise some issues. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve human health, and a consensus will need to be reached on the issues.

'For example, where do we draw the line on screening for genetic abnormalities in embryos? If when born, we are presented with the complete sequence of our genome, we will need to understand risk to interpret information on what our genes may say about our future health.

'These need to be discussed, not just by scientists but by the public more widely. There is an absolute responsibility for scientists to take their science into society.'

Alison is also very clear on the importance of 'science where we don't know where it is going to lead; science that is blue skies, curiosity-driven, non-impact led'. She adds: 'Many medical advances have been purely serendipitous, arising unexpectedly from studying a biological problem.'

She points to the example of the important biological process known as 'apoptosis', or 'programmed cell death'. This is a normally well controlled and regulated process that is important in the development of an embryo, and is also a way in which cells in tissues that are stressed or damaged are shut down and broken apart.

Alison explains: 'The process was first identified in the nematode worm. The process's importance became clear when mutants lacking an active cell death pathway didn't develop properly and the embryos would die.

'Apoptosis is also important in cancer formation in humans. The inability of cells to die when they should, coupled with the uncontrolled proliferation of cells can drive the growth of a tumour.

'The molecules involved in apoptosis are very highly conserved. Those in the worm are similar to those in a human tumour. Studying simple, model organisms such as the worm can have an enormous impact on cancer medicine and biomedicine in general.'

Alison notes that she is only the fifth woman to do the Christmas lectures since they began in 1825. 'Which is kind of shocking,' she says.

She believes that there is much still to be done to solve the poor representation of women in many areas of science. It's not that male scientists are necessarily discriminatory or sexist, she says, the biggest problem is the career path. The need to keep producing results and journal papers, to work all hours in the lab, to keep going to conferences, all the things you need to run a successful research group – it is hard to marry that with having a family.

Alison took six months' maternity leave for each of her children, but much of that time she was still running her lab. 'Who else would know my research to direct it?'

She adds: 'Looking back, it was detrimental to my own experience to try and do all these things at the same time.'

Wanting a sneak preview of the lectures, I ask about the demos the Christmas lectures are known for.

'The demos are not worked up yet,' Alison says, to my disappointment. 'Unlike chemistry, where you can put two chemicals together and get a big explosion but there is perhaps more difficulty building a narrative, biology has extraordinarily profound ideas but you need to find the bangs.

'A lot of biological material needs microscopy to see what's going on,' Alison points out. 'We'll need good microscopy and good projection to grab the attention. We're thinking about great, high tech ways of doing this,' she reveals. 'One thing I can promise - we'll see life unfurl before our very eyes.

'We can also balance this with audience participation. Biology lends itself quite well to games, and we're thinking about that too,' she says.

As we continue to enjoy the summer, there are some things about Christmas I can't think about yet: Christmas shopping, the heavy eating and drinking. But watching Alison's Christmas lectures is one thing I'm already looking forward to.