Students Staff

Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Professor Julia Goodfellow, CBE

Oration given on 1 April 2004

Chancellor, The Senate has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon JULIA GOODFELLOW

Just over fifty years ago, when our honorary graduand was just a baby, a new age of biology dawned. The elucidation of the molecular structure of DNA, the macromolecule that encodes our genetic blueprint and which is housed in the nucleus of each and every cell of our bodies, gave the world a new and profound insight into biological inheritance. At about the same time, and in the same laboratories in Cambridge, the structures of the first proteins were being revealed. The proteins are what might today be called nano-machines and are the physical manifestation of the encoded message that is passed to us from our parents. The structures of these two vital components of the living cell, DNA and protein, allowed us to see for the first time the great beauty of biological molecular structures and to begin to appreciate how their function springs from their form.

Building on this early pioneering work a generation of biologists, chemists, physicists and mathematicians, began to unravel some of the deepest secrets of life. Four years ago we entered a new millennium and with the subsequent publication of the draft of the human genome, the age of biology, born fifty years before, reached its vigorous early adulthood. We had entered the era of applied molecular biology, of genetic engineering and GM crops, of protein design. It is an era in which the billions of letters in the code of the human genome lie revealed, where DNA fingerprinting catches criminals and where the new biology holds out unparalleled hope for medical advances through individually tailored pharmaceuticals and through stem cell research. The list is almost endless.

Great opportunities now lie before us if the choices we make are wise and if the nation’s wealth, the taxpayer’s money, is spent to good effect on the fundamental scientific research needed to make real these opportunities. It is to the Biotechnological and Biological Research Sciences Council of the UK, the BBSRC, that these responsibilities are in part entrusted. It is the Chief Executive of that organisation that must guide and shape the policy of the BBSRC, a job that at this critical stage in the development of the biosciences into a mature science requires a special kind of scientist with special skills. It is the chief executive of the BBSRC, Professor Julia Goodfellow that we honour today.

Julia Goodfellow, Landsall as she then was, was born in 1951 and began her education at the Woking School for Girls and thereafter at the Reigate School for Girls. It may come as a surprise to some but it was at "O" level that she received her last formal biology course. However, in the new age of biology, as she herself has said, many and varied skills are required to solve the problems posed by biological systems not just those of the traditional biologist. In fact her interests were in the physical sciences and she read Physics at the University of Bristol. After this she transferred to the Open University Oxford Research Unit where she developed her interests in the problems of biology by completing in 1975 PhD in Biophysics. Her scientific career then took her, as a NATO Research Fellow, at Stanford University California, a leading centre for biophysics and structural biology. She returned to the UK in 1979 to join the staff at Birkbeck College London. It would be a gross understatement to say that Julia Goodfellow then rose through the ranks at Birkbeck. Her remarkable academic trajectory is a clear mark of her scientific distinction and the regard in which her colleagues and the wider scientific community hold her. From her position as a Research Fellow in1979 she had by 1995 become Professor of Biomolecular Sciences, Head of the Department of Crystallography in 1996 and Vice-Master of the College in 1998. In addition to her academic duties at Birkbeck Professor Goodfellow served on the panels of the major funding agencies for UK Biosciences, including the Wellcome Trust and the BBSRC itself and panels dealing with strategies for computing and informatics.

Her scientific work pioneered the use of computational methods to study the structures of DNA and proteins. In the 1980s this was very new and very difficult to accomplish. One of the most difficult aspects was to understand how these molecules interact with water, the solvent that comprises the majority of our bodies. It was this difficult and fundamental subject that Dr Goodfellow tackled, particularly how water and DNA interact.

Since that time she has continued her pioneering work and made important progress in protein dynamics. This is the study of how the shape of proteins, shapes integral to their function, change in time. Such computations may take days or longer to complete yet tell us the dynamics of a protein during only a few billionths of a second of real time; a very short time but one that can tell us how a protein folds and how it works.

The results of her work have been published widely in numerous learned journals and books. Professor Goodfellow was awarded a CBE for services to biophysics in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2001.

It was because of her academic standing in the field of structural and computational biology dealing with the essential macromolecules of life and inheritance; her experience in national committees and her excellent management skills developed at Birkbeck that in 2002 Professor Julia Goodfellow was asked to assume the leadership of the BBSRC, an organisation with an annual budget of £260 million and a scientific remit that encompasses agri-food, animal sciences, biochemistry and cell biology, biomolecular sciences, engineering and biological systems ,genes and developmental biology, plant and microbial sciences.

This is a high profile position and for someone who has said of herself " I am relatively shy so I don’t like promoting myself" it must have come as a shock. Nevertheless Professor Goodfellow has accepted the downside of the job and her picture, generally smiling, is now to be found on numerous web sites and, most recently, in a double page spread in the Education section of the Guardian. Fame indeed.

Since becoming Chief Executive she has taken up the challenging task of ensuring that the science supported by the BBSRC is internationally excellent, keeping the UK at the forefront of developments in the biosciences. She has summarised the position as follows "The UK research base in biotechnology and the life sciences is strong and internationally competitive, but the rate of progress is so fast that we need to press vigorously over the next few years. Recent advances in gene sequencing have taken the life sciences to one of the most exciting phases in scientific history and it is important that the UK maintains its position as one of the leading research nations in this field." One direction she wishes to follow will be towards a more integrative approach to biology in which an answer to a problem may encompass molecular, cellular and organismal approaches - systems biology. Another is the application of computational power to these problems - bioinformatics. Both approaches are closely in tune with Professor Goodfellow’s instincts as a scientist.

The science community, not always a group easy to please, welcomed the appointment of Dr Goodfellow. We trust her judgement and have confidence in her; we like the fact that she is still a practicing scientist and continues to lead her research group at Birkbeck. This confidence has recently been echoed by the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons. The Committee, in a report it published earlier this year, found much to praise at BBSRC and, here I quote, "it considered the administration to be largely transparent and efficient, and, most importantly, supported by the community". Select committees are also bodies not easily satisfied.

On top of all her other achievements Professor Goodfellow is an outstanding role model for women entering science. She has a distinguished scientific career and has found time to raise a family and to retain some private interests. Amongst these are opera, feminist detective fiction and making tapestries. We look forward to a Bayeux-like tapestry depicting the folding pathway of a protein.

Professor Goodfellow is now two years into her tenure at the BBSRC. We can be assured that this organisation is in good hands and that biosciences in the UK will be fostered. We wish her well in the multiple challenges involved in ensuring that the UK keeps its leading scientific position in this new age of biology, at a price the country can afford, while retaining the confidence of the general public. Modern biology may sometimes seem frightening, but its promise for a better world is enormous, and no more so than when entrusted to the hands of as distinguished and public-spirited scientist as Professor Goodfellow.

Chancellor, I present to you JULIA MARY GOODFELLOW

Orator: Professor Michael Wilson