Dr Alison Woollard: 'I've got the performing bug'

Prepare to be entranced by worms as the molecular biologist gets ready to give the Royal Institution science lectures. Jonathan Owen meets Alison Woollard

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"So this one is the 'old git' who's a bit grumpy," declares the star of the show. "You've met my husband, then," mutters a member of the production crew, to howls of laughter. At times, it seems more pub banter than cutting-edge science, though fortunately we are not talking about people. Instead, we are discussing the tiny worms that are the obsession of Dr Alison Woollard, an Oxford University geneticist and one of Britain's top biologists.

Dr Woollard is bringing her passion for Caenorhabditis elegans, the humble nematode, to the small screen. On the face of it, the nematodes are the unlikely stars of this year's prestigious Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, London, one of Britain's oldest scientific bodies.

The 45-year-old heads a research laboratory at Oxford University's Department of Biochemistry, where she studies the worms, no more than 1mm long, to understand how cells grow, divide and die. She finds the worms a source of constant fascination. It represents the "perfect compromise" between simplicity and complexity, as well as having a "striking genetic similarity" to other organisms – like humans.

While the worms may be the highlight of the lectures, it is quite clear that her enthusiasm and passion to explain their significance is the source of the lectures' real star quality. Speaking during a break in rehearsals for the lectures, to be broadcast on BBC 4 from 28 December, Dr Woollard is all smiles despite having been on her feet all day. "It's a huge privilege, there's a weight of expectation, but it's been huge amounts of fun and I've really enjoyed thinking about science in different ways." This year's theme is the "life fantastic" – looking at the ways in which cells, aided and abetted by DNA and genes, become all manner of organisms. And not just how cells work, but what happens when genes switch on and off.

The talks are heavy on audience participation. They involve stunts such as the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse riding a bike with pedals instead of a handlebar to symbolise cell mutation; and children forming human towers to represent DNA.

It's a big change from Dr Woollard's day job studying worms at microscopic level. She did not dream of being a scientist as a child and was an "all-rounder" at school. After starting a degree in environmental sciences, she dropped out after becoming more interested in biology. Working as a laboratory technician at University College London, she "realised that a research lab was where I wanted to spend my career", and she went on to study at Birkbeck College, London, graduating with first class honours in biological sciences in 1991. Four years later, she had her PhD from Oxford University. A stint at Cambridge University's Laboratory of Molecular Biology followed, before Dr Woollard returned to Oxford in 2000 to take up the post of lecturer in genetics.

"If we can identify the full set of instructions each cell has, and how each cell knows which ones to follow and which to disregard in their development, then we can apply this knowledge to the treatment and prevention of a range of diseases."

Cells do not die at random; they effectively decide to die in what scientists dub "programmed cell death". And the genes involved in this process – called apoptosis – in the humble worm are the same as those in human cells, something that's important in preventing cancer, she says. "We're starting to make a lot of inroads into how you can control apoptosis in cancer cells, but that's because of this basic biology having been worked out in an unexpected system."

When it comes to recent advances, she cites the ability to reprogram cells as being "pretty cool" since "it means you can take any cell and you can give it a new set of instructions... and turn it into pretty much anything that you want to turn it into".

Extending life is "not a dream", says Dr Woollard, but she doesn't "think scientists working on ageing are particularly interested in extending lifespan. I think they're interested in extending health span."

Forget eternal life, as that's "a fantasy", she insists. There will always be "biological limits on any organism", she adds, asking: "Would you want to live for ever?" Good question. Moving on, the biologist says it's all about "putting life into the years rather than years into the life".

This all sounds good, but what are the obstacles to it happening, I ask. Many people hate admitting ignorance. Not Dr Woollard. "I think we have an awful lot that we don't understand about the biology of ageing... there's a huge amount of the basic biology of ageing that we just don't understand. I think it has been neglected as an area of research."

One of the things that frustrates her is the notion of having a single gene "for" something or other. For most things, there are numerous genes involved and it's "alterations in versions of genes that make people have different characteristics".

Another annoyance is the negativity around genetically modified food. "We don't have a problem if it helps in medicine, do we?"

Wearing a suitably festive polar bear jumper, rather than regulation-issue white lab coat, she reflects on the weeks of rehearsals with a television production team in preparation for the Christmas lectures. "Doing this is completely incompatible with family life. I have actually abandoned my family. I haven't really seen them for about three weeks." A married mother of two – Alice, 10, and Emily, six – it is a "constant struggle" to balance work and home life, she says. "Maybe there are people who find it easy, but I find it extraordinarily challenging because there are a lot of deadlines, and children do things like get sick and need attention."

Despite such competing challenges, she says she has never encountered sexism "on a personal level". She acknowledges, however that "the system can certainly seem stacked against women with children". And while there is an equal representation of men and women at PhD student level, "it's certainly not when you get to principal investigator level. There's a big attrition of women after the age of about 28."

There's some trepidation over how well her lectures will go down with her fellow scientists. "If there's anything that's not quite right, then I have a thousand colleagues ready to point it out. I'll never live it down," she laughs.

But it's a safe bet that this will not be the last we see of Dr Woollard. She has a glint in her eye when I suggest she's caught the bug for "performing". "Oh it's been absolutely brilliant."

Dr Woollard 'Life Fantastic' will be broadcast on BBC 4 at 8pm on 28, 29 and 30 December

Bringing science to the public since 1825

The Royal Institution, in London, is one of Britain's oldest scientific bodies. Since it was founded in 1799, it has been home to scientists such as Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, James Dewar, William and Lawrence Bragg, and George Porter who between them discovered 10 chemical elements, won 14 Nobel Prizes, and made important discoveries in electromagnetism and molecular biology.

Bringing science to the wider public has always been one of its core aims. In the words of the RI's founding "prospectus", these are: "The speedy and general diffusion of the knowledge of all new and useful improvements in whatever quarter of the world they may originate; and teaching the application of scientific discoveries to the improvement of arts and manufactures in this country, and to the increase of domestic comfort and convenience."

The annual Christmas lectures were the brainchild of Michael Faraday and have been running since 1825. In almost 200 years, only the Second World War has stopped the annual event.

Recent years have seen the likes of Carl Sagan, Sir David Attenborough, and Richard Dawkins take the floor at the Faraday lecture theatre.

Dr Alison Woollard is only the fifth woman to have been selected to give the lectures. Neurologist Dame Susan Greenfield became the first in 1994. Others were Dame Nancy Rothwell, Professor Monica Grady, and Professor Sue Hartley.

Demand for tickets for one of the three lectures is such that people have to enter a ballot to be in with a chance. This year, there were 12 applications for every ticket.