Alison Woollard is a Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Hertford College. She was educated at the University of London and gained her doctorate working with Paul Nurse on fission yeast. Her research now focuses on the developmental biology of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. In December 2013 she presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (and brought some of her worms to show).
What was your experience of school like?
I went to Tiffin Girls’ School in Southwest London and didn’t appreciate how good it actually was. I don’t think you do: it’s just your school. I was an all-rounder academically: good at a variety of subjects.
What kind of people were you friends with at school?
I had a wide group of friends – not particularly of a certain kind (except maybe slightly geeky?). I wasn’t in the hockey-team and head-girl category. If anything, I think I was the kind that defies categorisation: I was always my own person.
What’s the most inspiring lesson you were in at school?
My most inspiring teacher was Miss Perry who taught A-level. I remember her because she treated us as adults which was very different from other teachers. At one point I wasn’t working hard, I was bored and disillusioned by Biology A-level (we had just spent a week putting pieces of potato in salt solution and then weighing them to investigate osmosis). Miss Perry took me to one side and said “Your trouble is that you’ve outgrown school. Read this” – and she handed me an article. I didn’t understand it all but was excited by what I did understand and inspired to learn more so I could understand the rest. Miss Perry was also studying (for a Masters degree) herself which was great: she would share with us the frustrations of study and some of her tips and techniques.
What is the most important lesson you've learned since leaving school?
I think I’ve learned that it’s never that hard: at least when it comes to academic learning. It doesn’t matter how hard the topic is, it can be broken down into steps and learned. I’ve also discovered that there are an awful lot of people who are cleverer than me, which is reassuring because otherwise there would be a lot of pressure to solve everything myself.
What did you find was the biggest change when you went to University?
I found being away from home very hard. It was made harder by the course I was on: I’d started on an Environmental Science course and then realised I should be studying pure science.
Why did you choose Biology?
When I realised Environmental Science was not for me I left University and got a job at a Biology Lab at UCL as a technician and fell in love with the idea of becoming a scientist: of doing scientific research. I took my Biology degree part-time at Birkbeck College whilst working as a technician.
What makes Biology worth studying?
Biology is all about the world we can see around us: and so it’s about processes that are worth understanding. Questions of how plants grow, of the diversity of animals, our bodies, and diseases are all fascinating and, importantly, tangible.
Do nematode worms make good pets?
Not good pets, no. They’re small (about 1mm long) and not very cuddly: all our experiments are done down microscopes. They’re great subjects for study because they’re so simple (about 1000 cells each) and transparent. It’s lovely to look at them each day and to see what new secrets they might reveal.
Can we learn anything about humanity by studying nematodes?
Yes! Understanding genes in worms can help us because there is a human counterpart to many worm genes. We can learn a huge amount about how a single cell (the fertilized egg) is transformed into a complicated multicellular organism using this simple, well-characterized model. In addition, the genetics of aging in humans is one thing that is not well understood that nematodes can help us with.
What question in Biology would you most like to be able to answer?
Most of all, I’d like full knowledge of what makes each cell-type know what to do, and where and when to do it. This kind of “molecular signature” would be tremendously useful in medicine to make cells that we want (to cure diseases and repair damage, for example – research along these lines is already very promising)
Did you consider going to Oxford as an undergraduate?
I didn’t get very good advice: when someone from school approached me about Oxbridge, I said that I wanted to study Environmental Science and, since that wasn’t an option there, they said “fair enough” and left me alone.
If you could give one piece of advice to your sixteen-year old self what would it be?
I’d say “work hard and follow your dreams”, and, most importantly, learn to be comfortable in your own skin. I’d also say that it’s really important not to worry about what’s next because you don’t have to get it right first time: opportunities have a habit of coming round again.
What was it like to do the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures?
It was fascinating, positive and exhausting. It was really interesting trying to communicate to the audience that quite difficult pieces of Biology were within their reach. Working with the production company was fantastic: presenting material I’m very used to but to a different audience and in a different way. It was very creative.
Is Darwin the greatest Biologist ever?
The idea of evolution and genetics is the greatest idea in Biology but it’s not all Darwin’s: he was very frustrated that he didn’t understand how evolution worked: a man called Gregor Mendel had those ideas but was largely ignored at the time – the grand unifying theory came from combining Darwin and Mendel. Actually Darwin has competition on the natural selection front as well, from Alfred Russell Wallace who did the same kind of work and came to the same kind of conclusions. Darwin came from a wealthy background and was able to be a gentleman scientist but Wallace was from working-class Wales and had to earn money to support himself. He got jobs out in Malay Peninsula and other places in order to study the animals there.
What do you like to do when you are not appearing on television or torturing nematodes?
Ordinary things with my family: I have two children aged 7 and 10 and we play games, mess around with train sets, go swimming and so on. We spend a lot of time laughing.
One of your webpages says that at C. elegans conferences there is a worm comedy show. Worm comedy?
Yes: you can find it on Youtube if you search for “worm show”. It’s a bit of a niche audience with lots of in-jokes on working with nematodes but it’s so funny that the fly people have asked the worm comedians to come and do a show for them at their next conference.