Biology alumni profiles

1963-1972

Graduates from 1963 - 1972

Brian Stableford (1969)

'I graduated in 1969 and then did three years postgraduate research with Mark Williamson, but never wrote up the DPhil, preferring instead to try to scrape a living as a freelance writer. Now, 35 years and more than a hundred books later, I'm still trying to scrape a living as a freelance writer, marveling at the fact that I didn't starve to death in the interim.

'Some time during my sojourn in York I bought a copy of JBS Haldane's Daedalus from Ken Spelman's bookshop in Micklegate, and was powerfully affected by Haldane's assertion that all "biological inventions" are doomed at first to be deemed to be horrid violations of nature. I made my mind up then to become an apologist for and champion of biological inventors, and have done my best in a six-novel future history series begun with The Cassandra Complex (which is mostly set on an English university campus) and a vast series of short stories collected in such volumes as Sexual Chemistry, Designer Genes, The Cure For Love and The Tree Of Life. The series continues; the Yorkshire-set "Following the Pharmers" is in Asimov's Science Fiction. Almost none of this work has seen print in the UK -- such reputation as I have subsists entirely in the USA -- but the miracles of modern technology make all of it easily available, mostly at discount prices, through Amazon.

'I retain fond memories of most of my fellow students, and such staff members as Mark Williamson, Alan Winter, Alan Wilson and Mike Chadwick, although I doubt that the feelings can be mutual in the latter cases, if any of them still remain around; they would presumably regard me as a dismal failure, if not a traitor to the cause--but they might perhaps find some tiny crumb of comfort in knowing that they left an indelible impression on my intelligence and practical endeavours.'


Elizabeth Moncrieff, nee Haynes (1971)

'I came up to York in 1968 to read Biology with Education – an innovative combination in those days, and ideal for an intending teacher.

'The memories are many – the morning stroll through the campus from Alcuin to Biology; having to wear a pink lab coat which had gone in the wash with something it shouldn’t; spending my first decimal coins in the Goodricke coffee bar (now I do feel old!); and, yes, the lectures and tutorials we attended and the staff who supported and encouraged us. How good to see that some names on the current staff list are familiar – they must have been very young in 1968.

'One of the great things about York was the encouragement to widen one’s experience beyond the subjects being studied for a degree. In particular, I remember Patrick Nuttgens’ Open Lectures and the opening of the Lyons’ Concert Hall, not to mention late-night bridge sessions in Langwith, and endless playing of a word-game the name of which I cannot remember.

'Students in the Education Department were encouraged to take their knowledge and experience into the community, and I spent one lunch time a week running a science club at Heslington Primary School. Whether or not this was the catalyst for a change of direction, by the end of my degree course, I had decided that it was in the Primary sector that I wanted to make my career. Sadly, York did not run a Primary PGCE course, and so I went to St Martin’s College in Lancaster for the next year.

'Whilst there, I met my future husband, Howard, who had graduated from Durham. We applied for jobs in various parts of the country, and as we were both offered posts in Chester, that is where we settled. To our surprise, we are still here and now consider it our home town.

'I have worked in four schools in the county, teaching every age group from 6 year olds to 12 year olds. (I have been known to take the Reception and Nursery class, but only when a supply teacher is not to be found!) For the past ten years, I have been headteacher of a small village school in the south of the county. I have seen the numbers at my present school rise from 60 to 85, and have survived four Ofsted inspections! I still teach a class two days a week, and coordinate the science and music in school. I have not attached a picture to this profile, but I can be seen in headteacher mode on our school web site - Tushingham C.E. Primary School.

'Away from work, I am a keen gardener and birdwatcher. Holiday times will usually find us in the north of Scotland, on the look out for sea eagles and other highland specialities.

'I haven’t been back to the University since 1972, nor have I kept in touch with anyone from my undergraduate days, but those three years were very important to me and I enjoy the memories prompted by reading about the University today, and the news of other alumni. Thanks to everyone involved in producing the newsletter.'

1973-1982

Graduates from 1973 - 1982

Brian Johnson (1974)

'After spending six years as an analytical chemist in local government I arrived at York in 1971 to read Chemistry. I was a 'mature' (if 26 is mature) student with a VW bus and some money in the bank. As I lay on my small hard bed in Alcuin that night I thought: " What on earth have I done? I've given up a well paid (but boring) career, left all my friends in Cambridge, to study yet more Chemistry - and then what?" I did some hard thinking that night and realised that I really wanted to study Biology, my passion in life (besides the usual pastimes of music, drinking and trying to get laid). Trotted off next day to Chemistry, just in time to hear the 'welcoming lecture'. This confirmed my worst fears - the theme was: "You are here to work, work, work - so get used to it right now!" I turned to the chap sitting beside me and said: "This sounds grim! I'm off to Biology because I've heard it's a lively department and it has to be better than this!" He said: " I'll come along as well, just to have a look." The Biology Department welcomed us both into the fold, and the person sitting beside me in that lecture is now an FRS heading up an international research institute!

'The Biology course at York in the 70s was great - with young, enthusiastic lecturers who inspired everyone to think deeply about all aspects of Biology, and then organised departmental parties to obliterate any conclusions (no Health and Safety stuff in those days!). I enjoyed my three years as an undergrad; not only the Biology course and university life, but also the freedom to roam through different departments (enjoying sociology and philosophy lectures as well), not forgetting the beautiful northern countryside with rich botany and wonderful trout fishing. Field trips to Wales and Scotland were pure pleasure; good company, inspirational teaching from the likes of Chris Rees, Geoff Oxford, Andy Hodges and John Lawton, and hazy evenings. I was chairman of Ents for a year and even shared a house with Greg Dyke and his dog at Escrick. To balance all the fun and work, we found the time to protest in our thousands (well OK - hundreds) about grants (remember them?), wars and Northern Ireland - today's students take note!

'Graduating in 1974, I immediately launched myself into an adventure involving driving a bus to the East via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drove straight through the Greek/Turkish preparations for war over Cyprus, and the beginning of the fall of the Shah, with a bus full of British, French, American and Aussie freaks. More by luck than judgement I arrived back in England late in '75, receiving a note from York that read something like: "SRC research grant arrived for you in August - where on earth are you?" So back I went to York to start three years research into snail genetics, with Geoff Oxford supervising. This time I found myself part of the teaching and research team, along with several others from the class of '74, including Caroline, who was later to become my wife and bear us four fine children. We left in 1978, just before the appalling Thatcher tried to destroy British scientific research, dashing our hopes of getting jobs in academia. We both applied for the same post in Cornwall, and Caroline got it! I wrote up my research, was awarded a D Phil in 1980, and started teaching biology in the brand new school at Mullion on the Lizard, while Caroline tried to write up her research and work full time as conservation officer in charge of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. She succeeded in gaining her doctorate in 1982 and turned the Cornwall Trust into an effective campaigning body.

'We left Cornwall to move nearer to civilisation (sorry Cornwall, no offence meant - we love you really!) when I was appointed Assistant Regional Officer with the Nature Conservancy Council (now English Nature), in charge of the Somerset Levels. The Levels was a controversial area where NCC officials had just been burnt in effigy during a minor riot over designating sites for wildlife protection. My job, according to the Chief Scientist Derek Ratcliffe, was to designate another eight sites; "without any more riots, please". With help from a great team of people, we did just that, under intense press scrutiny. I learnt a lot about media work, having been sent for training to the outfit that trained Mrs Thatcher - now that's irony!

'After a long and fruitful career with English Nature, heading up the botanical service, peatland conservation and biotechnology advisory units (dealing with highly controversial issues about peatlands and GMOs), I finally 'retired' last December. Actually it's just a change of desk because I still sit on various BBSRC and NERC committees, have just started work on a global assessment of agricultural science and technology, and teach a course on advocacy at Bristol. We have four lively and successful offspring and I still find time to fish. Caroline has had a successful career in nature conservation, then another in music, and is now helping to organise voluntary services in Somerset. Throughout our working lives we've used the breadth and depth of knowledge, and the ability to see the wider picture gained in our six years at York, a university which produces more than its fair share of outstanding specialists but also people like Caroline and me; polymaths who are always trying something new!'


Ian Maxwell (1976)

'Receiving the alumni news makes me feel slightly guilty that I didn't remain a biologist for long after York. But the York magic must have persisted - my eldest daughter has just achieved an A pass at Higher Biology, following weeks of coaching by me. Just as well they haven't changed the Krebs Cycle in the last 30 years.

'York Biology did provide me with a career though, as a cycle campaigner and consultant in promoting bicycle use.

'The Millport field trip during first year re-introduced me to cycling, and when I returned to York for the summer term I bought a bike in the police auction and was sold on two-wheel transport.

'My main impact on York was to help start the sub-aqua club, with much help from Chris Rees and Rupert Ormond. We even went diving in the lake once or twice, although strongest memory is of a field trip to Cornwall in the hot summer of 76, hearing my finals results from John Digby in a Cornish phone box and not really caring that I couldn't do a PhD in starfish behaviour.

'After graduating I worked for the Zoological Record for a short while, followed by several years writing abstracts of animal breeding papers for the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau.

'But then the lure of the bicycle journalism kicked in, and I worked for a succession of magazines and the London Cycling campaign. Nowadays I am helping to turn Edinburgh into a cycling city, as well as working for One Parent Families Scotland.

'York biology was a wonderful experience, even although I haven't worn a lab coat since. And now the Biology Department is on a national cycle route, I can hope for further generations of cycling biologists to follow in my tyre tracks.'


Sally Todd (1980)

'I did my BSc (we were allowed to choose as it was a BA when we started) at York 1977-1980 - there was no placement year in those days.

'I am now working as a careers adviser at Cambridge University, having changed career (from plant breeding) in my 40's! Incidentally, my first exposure to the idea of plant breeding as a career was through a poster on the departmental noticeboard at York, advertising an MPhil course (which no longer runs) at Cambridge.

'You can find a dreadful photo and potted history from 1980-2001 on the ScienceCareers site (although it doesn't mention that straight after graduation I spent 2 years in Kenya as a VSO science teacher). In Jan 2002 I moved to the Open University (in Cambridge) and then on here in Feb 2003.

'I still think the course where Dr Firn gave us an imaginary paper to criticise was probably the most useful one I did at York - Richard really worked at getting us thinking.

'I also learnt a lot through the Natural History Society (eg James Merryweather's fungal forays) and the Sub-Aqua Club, which was full of biologists. I think York attracted/selected students who were interested in getting more than a degree out of University - I can still remember being quizzed about my views on apathy at my entrance interview. In my day the course was very broad, and gave one space to discover one's real strengths and interests, and the place of science within society.'

1983-1992

Graduates from 1983 - 1992

John Warren (1987)

'I completed my D.Phil. in Biology in 1987, on the evolution of variation in breeding system in Senecio vulgaris (literal translation = common old man, actual translation = groundsel). From York I moved to the University of Liverpool, where I spent two years quite literally sowing wild oats. As this was not as much fun as it sounded I fled the country, spending the next three years as a cocoa breeder, working on the world chocolate gene-bank at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. I returned to the UK in 1993 and now lecture in Conservation and Countryside Management at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. My full CV and current research interests are available via: http://users.aber.ac.uk/jhw/, although its best to take the bit about "John Warren has a visiting chair from the University of Maximegalon and a personal drinks cabinet from MFI" with a pinch of salt.'


Peter Cotgreave (1989)

'Like most eighteen year olds starting university, I didn't really know what to expect, and what I found in the Biology Department at York was certainly unforgettable. The experience of John Currey flicking the tendon out of a cow's neck or Alastair Fitter's eloquent enthusing about the beautiful Royal Ferns at Askham Bog were enough to make anyone want to be a scientist. For me, one of the great things about the course was the sheer diversity of different bits of biology we covered. I didn't much care for the biochemistry, but enjoyed all the ecology, physiology and whole organism biology.

'Getting to know a range of different lecturers (both through the course and the Natural History Society) was valuable when two friends (David Middleton and Mike Hill) and I came to organise an expedition to the Brazilian rainforest. Peter Hogarth kindly acted as our Home Agent, and Chris Rees gave us hugely invaluable advice. The Chancellor of the University at the time, the late Lord Swann, was our Patron, and one or two York-based companies helped out financially. In the end, we were not able to go until a year after graduation (and the work ended up padding out my PhD thesis!), but it was our time at York that made it possible.

'It was my third-year project, supervised by John Lawton, that made me think I might want to do a PhD in ecology, which I ended up doing at Oxford. After a period as a postdoctoral researcher in France, I worked as a university lecturer for a year before moving to the Zoological Society of London, where I spent part of the time doing ecological research in Africa, and part helping the London Zoo press office with stories that involved science. That meant dealing with journalists and external guests from Cabinet Ministers to three-year old children, and it somehow led naturally to my current role as the Director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering.

'My job is to represent the views of the membership (about 2000 individuals and 100 organisations) who are interested in ensuring that science stays healthy in the UK. That means meeting with ministers, civil servants and their advisers, helping backbench MPs to table questions or prepare for debates, speaking to journalists and writing articles, publishing analyses and opinions, and of course keeping in touch with what's happening in the science departments of schools, companies and universities.

'I don't really do any science any more, but it's a great help that I have a proper scientific training. The science world treats me as one of its own (I'm even allowed to write articles for the Biochemist, despite my views about biochemistry), and the politicians imagine I must at least have a clue what I'm talking about.

'You can find out more about what I am doing now at CaSE from our website at www.sciencecampaign.org.uk.'

1993-2002

Graduates from 1993 - 2002

Carolyn Truman (1993)

'I left York to begin a PhD at Wye College, University of London with Charles Ainsworth, but that did not go as I expected, so I left and retrained as a teacher. I am now an assistant Head at a Grammar school in Lincolnshire and am hoping to move up to deputy headship in the near future.

'My most memorable Tutors were Dr Sue Bougourd and Dr Rumsby (because he lectured in shorts and told us we would never forget his lecture as we were all listening to the radio during it at the start of the gulf war... and I haven't forgotten it - or it's content).

'Thanks for a wonderful time, and if anyone wants to know about being a science teacher in a secondary school, feel free to get in touch: Carolyn Greig, Bourne Grammar School.'


Mike Goodson (2000)

'My name is Mike Goodson and I completed my DPhil in May 2000, after (slightly over) three fantastic years in the Department of Biology at University of York. During that time I was able to interact with excellent staff and a brilliant cohort of graduate students.

'On the academic side of things, I was lucky enough to be able to be mentored by Prof. Angela Douglas, studying the symbiosis between corals and their symbiotic algae. Although I didn't really realise it when I started, Angela is one of the leading symbiosis researchers in the Europe, and her impact on my career has been, and still is, immense. Angela's lab used to be on the second floor of the biology building which, as a young researcher, was a great place to be. Angela's lab occupied the convergence zone between ecology and molecular biology, both intellectually and physically: at one end of the corridor was Prof. Peter Young's lab and I am indebted to Peter, as well as his postdocs Tim, Sarah, and Thorunn, for dragging me by my bootstraps (excuse the pun) into the world of molecular biology and bioinformatics; at the other end of the corridor were Prof. Jeremy Searle's lab and Dr. Geoff Oxford's lab, both of which made sure that I didn't lose sight of the ecology of the organisms I was studying amongst the bands on my electrophoresis gel.

'As you can imagine, there isn't a lot of living coral around York, so I was fortunate enough to carry out six months' fieldwork at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (and yes, many people did question my parentage when I told them about this). My fieldwork experience was brilliant, not only because it allowed me to visit a stunningly beautiful island, but because it also allowed me to interact with coral reef researchers from all over the world. The network of contacts that I made there have stood me in good stead for my career so far.

'I obtained my BSc and my MSc away from York. Both of these degree programmes consisted of close-knit groups and I had been warned that a DPhil is a somewhat lonely pursuit by comparison. However, I found there to be a spirit and togetherness within the department that soon dispelled that assertion (this could have had something to do with sharing House G, St. Lawrence Court with a certain Annette Byrne for two years though). I was lucky enough to have a great bunch of people going through their DPhils at the same time as I was, and it made the obligatory 'bad experiment days' much more bearable. This camaraderie was fostered by the department and I feel that this aspect of a graduate degree within the Department of Biology was, and hopefully still is, one of the ways that the department distinguishes itself from other graduate degree programmes at other universities.

'I completed my DPhil at York in May 2000, and was actively looking for post-doctoral positions. I applied to the University of Hull and I also applied to a marine symbiosis lab at the University of Hawaii to see what would happen. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was lucky enough to be offered the position at Hull on the same day that the University of Hawaii got in touch. The decision of where to go was harder than you might think; the lab in Hull was really good, and I had to make sure that I was taking the job in Hawaii for the right reasons, only one of those being the location.

'After much deliberation I decided to take the Hawaii position, and I moved out there in August 2000. The system I am working on is the association between the Hawaiian bobtail squid and its luminescent bacteria. Only one type of bacteria is able to form this association, and the squid have to acquire them from the seawater upon hatching. I am studying how the bacteria and squid signal to each other to allow the symbiosis to form, a system that is analogous to host responses to bacteria in humans. The marine lab was situated right on the water with a view of Waikiki, and I worked with great people (one of whom became my wife!) in a wonderful location. I was there for four years, at which point the whole lab moved to University of Wisconsin in the middle of the USA and we have to endure winter temperatures of -22 oC! So now the closest I get to Hawaii is the photos that are hanging in the temperature controlled aquarium room. I am really enjoying the work and the environment out here though, and I am really grateful for the sound grounding in molecular biology, ecology, and research in general that I was given at York. I really do feel that being part of the department has allowed me to pursue avenues that would otherwise have been closed to me. I have to admit though, the Christmas party at my current department wasn't a patch on the Department of Biology's one!'

2003-2009

Graduates from 2003 - 2009

David Priest (2005)

'When I first came to the department I was a bright eyed young whipper snapper full of enthusiasm about plants and excited about the possibilities of using them to end hunger and save the world.

'Yes, slightly idealistic, I know.

'Unsurprisingly I didn't achieve all of this during my PhD on a "Glucosyltransferase that Recognises Abscisic Acid". But once all the directionless enthusiasm had been brought under control, the Bowles Group found they were able to teach me lots of things… largely involved with how to think, plan and present clearly and rigorously.

'After I'd spent hundreds of hours doing mind-numbing tasks, such as observing root emergence from Arabidopsis seeds (each the size of a sand grain for the non-planty readers), and then found the data to be pretty meaningless it taught me to think more carefully the next time. Really think. Carefully think, not just about what I wanted or expected to happen, but also what might happen and then to include that in the experimental design.

'Similarly, before presenting (and possibly defending) work at our highly interactive lab-meetings, I learned to think carefully about the true meaning of my data, what its limits were, and exactly what I wanted to say with it.

'I was very fortunate to attend three international conferences and visit a lab in Canada. These experiences taught me to go out there and talk about science in the big wide world, away from the security of York. I developed relationships with scientists from far distant places (called 'networking'). Many of those contacts are continuing to consult and advise me as friends.

'To go on these long distance missions, it was necessary for Dianna to help me apply for money. That was a learning experience too. How to convince somebody that my wants are really interesting and I've got a great starting position and if only they'd give me a bit of cash I'd be in a wonderful position to make the most of it.'

How I used my PhD in Asia

'So, I've been in recovery mode since completing my PhD. I've spent the last few months travelling in Asia. When I wasn't having fun Surfing in Bali or trekking through the Jungles of Borneo or in the Indian Himalayas, I accidentally found ways to utilise my newfound scientific skills. I spent 10 days visiting an HIV/AIDS project in the slums of Pune, India. I was inspired by the courageous efforts of the team to bring purpose, comfort and hope into the lives of those infected with HIV. One day I took part in a public education event. The next day I held the hands of a man dying of TB and a woman starving to death because oral thrush prevented her from eating. I had so many questions that I was given their quarterly reports to read. I couldn't help noticing they had attempted to legitimise their report by including graphs. These graphs showed nothing of any meaning at all, but I could tell that a little effort would reveal the important data hidden inside. When I mentioned this, the Project Manager put me to work. It was so easy and natural to me, even though I am a plant geek rather than an immunologist. And I do believe that good presentation of data is important for the project: not only so that the team can understand their own work, but also so that they can demonstrate to potential funding agencies the effectiveness of their strategies. They have now asked me to read and comment on the grant applications that they are writing.

'On another occasion I visited an arboretum in Sri Lanka that was using a new technique to reforest scrub areas of the island. Essentially they had removed all the scrub and creepers, which allowed suppressed tree species to grow up and establish themselves. In a model plot, a small forest had been established complete with important hard wood trees such as Ebony and Satinwood. The arboretum had employed an enthusiastic young man with a masters degree in ecology to carry out research in the area. This young man, Buddhika, was doing a lot of work, but I could tell that it wasn't quite right. It wasn't wrong, but I got the feeling that his experiments could be designed to give him data that would be more reliable… I couldn't remember enough ecology to know how, but I could recommend to the Arboretum Manager that he make sure Buddhika receive some supervision from a more experienced academic.'

So, what am I doing now?

'Well, I'm very lucky to have been awarded a Wain International Travel Fellowship by the BBSRC. I'm going to use this to work with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for a year in Kenya. The plan is to help set up a network for crop breeders and agricultural biotechnologists in Africa to help Africans to solve the hunger problem on their own. It's all very exciting but, to be honest, I'm a little terrified about the new challenge… stepping outside academia for the first time and all that. What will happen after that year, who knows? Carry on in development, or possibly return to academia with a new sense of perspective?'

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Although care has been taken in preparing the information supplied on this web site, the University of York and the Department of Biology do not and cannot guarantee the accuracy of it. The University cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions and accepts no liability whatsoever for any loss or damage howsoever arising. Please read the full University Disclaimer.