On 1 January Julia Goodfellow became the first woman appointed to the post of Chief Executive at any of the UK's seven research councils. In taking over the helm of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC) from Ray Baker she becomes one of the UK's most influential scientists. The BBSRC's annual budget is over £200 million, and Goodfellow will oversee government funding of research in the nonmedical life sciences: an area that stretches from agriculture to genetics, from molecular structure to population biology.
Goodfellow brings to her role not only more than 25 years of research experience, but also an understanding of what it means to balance working as a scientist with bringing up a family. Her husband is a geneticist, and they have two children.
Despite the fact she now heads a biological research council, Goodfellow started out in the physical sciences. She took a B.Sc. in Physics at Bristol University and a Ph.D. in biophysics at an Open University centre near Oxford. She and her husband then moved to postdoctoral positions at Stanford University, California, where she was one of the first scientists to use synchrotron radiation to study the structure of proteins. On her return to the UK, she joined John Finney's group at Birkbeck, studying the interactions between proteins and water molecules. Her move to the BBSRC marks the end of almost 20 years at Birkbeck, where she rose to become Head of the School of Crystallography in 1996 and Vice-Master of the college in 1998. She has been a member of BBSRC Council since 1997.
Next Wave caught up with Goodfellow in her office at Birkbeck last October, as she prepared to take up her new position.
NW: When did you first become interested in science?
JG: I have been interested in science since my childhood. Crazy as it may sound, I chose to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics at A Level because they were my favourite subjects and I found them easiest! I went to a girls' grammar school, and the teachers there were very supportive towards girls who wanted careers in science.
NW: Why did you decide to change from physics to the biological sciences?
JG: My third-year project at Bristol was in the biophysics group, looking at the structures of polysaccharides. I enjoyed this work; just as importantly, I noticed that some of my friends were having difficulty finding jobs as "conventional" physicists. Even then, there was a "buzz" about molecular biology, and there were good role models for women. Dorothy Hodgkin, who was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, was leading research into protein structure in Oxford.
NW: What was it like to work at Stanford?
JG: It was a wonderful experience! We were able to visit the Yosemite National Park and the Californian coast very easily. We also had enough money for the first time in our lives. But we eventually decided to return to the UK and build our careers there.
NW: What influenced your decision to move to London?
JG: We chose London because there were good scientific opportunities for us both there. There were several structural biology labs setting up in London then. My research interests fitted in particularly well with the established groups at Birkbeck, including one led by Tom Blundell, who was one of my predecessors as BBSRC Chief Executive.
NW: How difficult was it for you to combine a successful research career with bringing up small children?
JG: I was very lucky, in that the senior staff at Birkbeck were very supportive; I was appointed to a lectureship when I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. During my maternity leaves I was able to use a modem to access computers at Birkbeck and elsewhere from home. This technology was new then, and it was a very positive way of helping me continue with my research.
NW: What do you think your most important research achievements have been?
JG: I have used computer modelling, based on experimental data, to show in detail how proteins interact with the water molecules that surround them in living cells. Most recently, I have shown that interactions with water influence the way that proteins fold. Errors in protein folding are involved in many diseases, ranging from cataracts to cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
NW: What are you looking forward to most about taking up the reins at the BBSRC?
JG: This is an exciting time for biological research in the UK for several reasons. First, we are now in a position to exploit the results of the genome sequencing projects. Secondly, there is great potential for exploiting basic biological research in commercial applications, including drug design. And thirdly, there is at long last a real increase in the funding of the UK science base, with many welcome new initiatives.
NW: With a background in theoretical molecular biology, how would you respond to a request for an expert opinion on, say, foot-and-mouth disease?
JG: Fortunately, I am not expected to become an instant expert on all biology! The role of the Chief Executive is that of a facilitator, bringing people from different disciplines together. Senior scientists are involved in formulating BBSRC's policy through Council and its various committees.
NW: How can you use your position to support young scientists, particularly women, in their career development?
JG: Many of the problems that affected me when my children were small are now being addressed, with, for instance, increases in maternity leave and maternity allowances. I want to look further at developing the career structure for government-funded scientists. However, the low salary levels of scientists mirror those in some other public service professions and this is too large a problem to be solved by the BBSRC alone. There are some simple things that can be done to change the culture and make it more "family friendly", for example, making more meetings fit in with working days. We must make it seem natural for male scientists to say, "I can't make that meeting, I have to pick up my kids"!
NW: What other major challenges do UK biologists face at the beginning of the 21st century?
JG: One of the key problems is how few young people are taking up science. Although the double science GCSE is probably increasing general scientific literacy, science A Level enrolments are still falling. Many youngsters see biology as more threatening than exciting, with worries about issues like cloning, genetic modification, and biological weapons. The BBSRC must have a role in communicating enthusiasm about our subject to young people.