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Fast Track: Curriculum Vitae: MIKE DEXTER

Mike Dexter, 54, is director of the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest medical research charity

PNEUMONIA PREVENTED me from taking my science-based A-levels. I did consider staying on at school for an extra year but, as with most 18-year- olds, my only priority was leaving school.

I got work in a wire factory in Salford as a trainee production manager, but before long I started to resent the fact that there was no challenge. If I could do the job after a few weeks, what would it be like in 10 years? And I still had a desire to go into science.

So I applied to the Paterson Laboratories at the Christie Hospital - as it was called then - and got a job as junior technician. I was fortunate enough to work with one of the country's foremost geneticists, who encouraged me to enrol at night school.

By the time I got to Salford University to study physiology and zoology, I was 22 years old, married, and living in a village near Macclesfield. But I think it led me to get more out of the experience of further education than younger students. I was far more dedicated; my understanding of and commitment to research was undoubtedly higher.

During that time, I decided to go for a PhD in ecology. One day in my final year of university, however, my next-door neighbour's son died of leukaemia. It had a terrible effect on me and I made a commitment right there and then to leukaemia research.

I got my PhD - in which I specialised in cell biology - from the department of oncology of Manchester University in 1973. I am still grateful to my supervisor, Laszlo Lajtha, for allowing me to argue with him about most things. He'd often try to talk me out of doing certain research but once my hypothesis was proven right, he was always delighted for me. His encouragement enabled me to complete one of the most highly cited papers in cell biology. I think it's important for graduates who decide to do a PhD to try to build up that kind of relationship.

In fact, after my PhD, Laszlo offered me a post-doctoral fellowship in his department. But after a few years I decided I wanted a change of scenery and went to New York as a visiting fellow for a year. That was very exciting. Indeed, the opportunity to travel is one of the nice things about this work.

When I returned to Manchester, Laszlo was close to retirement and asked me to take over as head of department. That was a true challenge because many of the people in that department were senior to me. But they were extremely supportive and with their help, I managed to expand the department's research in leukaemia as well as other areas. It wasn't long before the department had become multidisciplinary and a paradigm for many other departments across the UK. I became a director of the Paterson Institute two years ago.

Shortly afterwards, I decided to accept the offer of becoming director to the Wellcome Trust. For the first time I was away from Manchester, but I felt strongly that the Trust influences science in a way that Manchester cannot.

I always warn science graduates not to get caught up in the competitiveness that has started to immerse the world of science. When I started out, we'd go to scientific meetings and there was a great sense of working together. Now, my fear is that scientists are so competitive that youngsters become reluctant to voice their concerns about research because it may influence their careers.

Interview by

Kate Hilpern