Wendy Bickmore is the Director of the UK Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, Scotland. She will be giving the ESHG Award Lecture on Tuesday, June 9 at 14.15 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
Wendy Bickmore’s interest in science dates from her early teenage years. «At school I had a fabulous biology teacher, and at home my parents were both keen gardeners and knew a lot about plants. My father’s first job on leaving school at 14 was as a gardener on a big estate, and my mother was a florist. So, although neither of them had any formal education beyond school, they had a big influence on my career choice. »
Her father went on to become a policeman, but he always had a beautiful flower garden at home, as well as an allotment where he grew a large, diverse quantiy of fruit and vegetables. « So early on I learned how to chit potatoes, to prune, and to take cuttings. I even did earthworm dissections in my dad’s greenhouse, which he wasn’t too pleased about! »
This, combined with learning about apical dominance in plants at school, and being fascinated with how it was controlled by a flow of a molecule down the plant – a first awareness that complex biological processes could be understood at a molecular level – led her inexorably towards a scientific career. «I had flirted with the idea of studying medicine at university, but one summer when I had a holiday job working in a canteen, I read ‘The Chemistry of Life’ by Steven Rose. That reinforced that my real interest was in biochemistry and that is what I went on to study at university. »
After a BA in biochemistry from Oxford, she studied for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, analysing nucleic acid sequences from the human Y chromosome under the supervision of Howard Cooke and Adrian Bird. In 2015 she became director of the MRC HGU, succeeding Professor Nick Hastie.
Wendy Bickmore continues to be content about her career choice. « There are so many things to be happy about as a scientist. I find it an amazing privilege that someone pays me to follow my own curiosity and to discover new things. Of all the things my lab has discovered over the years, I am most proud of our discovery that human chromosomes do not have a random organisation within the cell nucleus but have preferred positions. It was one of those (rare) eureka moments looking down the microscope and seeing this distinctive pattern. It has become a textbook example and has spurred other researchers to ask questions about 3D genome organisation. »
Some things have changed for the worse, however. « When I was a student and postdoc it was a moment of great celebration to get a paper submitted and published. Nowadays it seems like a relentless battle, so that when a paper is finally accepted the feeling is more of relief than satisfaction. A scientific paper should simply be a means of communicating a discovery, but it seems to have turned into a competition for who can spin and oversell their science most effectively. On the bright-side, the rising uptake of preprints is beginning to address this issue, so I am more optimistic about the future. »
Her days of looking down a microscope herself are behind, her, she says, but what gives her me most satisfaction now is helping develop and nurture the careers of others in her lab and institute and seeing them go on to establish successful careers in science in their own rights.
And the future? « I have mixed thoughts about retirement. On the one hand I do worry about running out of ideas and energy, but on the other hand I can’t imagine not thinking about science on a daily basis. I think that we need a wider conversation about how scientists past retirement age can still contribute to the whole scientific enterprise, without taking away grants and lab space from the next generation. The collective experience and wisdom of older scientists could be harnessed to help in mentorship, science policy and other science related activities, » she says.
Wendy Bickmore has maintained her interest in gardening. « My garden is my sanctuary and where I spend most of my free time. I also dabble in botanical illustration and watercolour painting, but that needs a lot of time which I just don’t have at the moment. Having more time will certainly be one benefit of retirement. I am also interested in reforestation in Scotland. Though I enjoy walking in the Scottish hills and mountains, I am conscious that they are largely devoid of trees due to centuries of deforestation and over-grazing by sheep and deer. I belong to an organisation called Trees for Life which is working to restore the Caledonian forest in the highlands of Scotland. A week digging and planting trees in the Scottish wilderness – in wind, rain, snow or sun – is the perfect antidote to sitting in front of a computer at work all week. »
In her ESHG lecture she will discuss the functional significance of genetic variation in the non-coding genome, much of which contains enhancers that regulate the expresion of genes in development. « Remarkably, enhancers can be found as far away as 1 megabase from the target gene whose expression they control. I will describe our work to investigate and manipulate the three-dimensional organisation of the mammalian genome at specific enhancers, to examine their chromatin structure and epigenetic modifications and to determine how extracellular signals can modify their functional output. »