It's a family affair (with apologies to Sly Stone)

It's a family affair (with apologies to Sly Stone)

In 2022, I hope to celebrate 25 years working at the Babraham Institute. Whilst these years seem to have flown by, my tenure at Babraham is nothing special when we have colleagues who have been here for 30 or even 35 years. It is interesting to contemplate why so many people have elected to stay for so long.

My Babraham beginnings

Babraham aerial shot approx 1998
Aerial photo of Babraham campus in 1998

I joined the Babraham Institute as a tenure-track group leader in 1997 for two reasons; Len Stephens and Phill Hawkins. As a PhD student with Michael Wakelam, I had grown to appreciate the ground-breaking work Len and Phill were doing on inositol lipid signalling. In May 1991, a week before I flew to California to start my post-doc at ONYX Pharmaceuticals, Len published his landmark Nature paper showing definitively that PIP3 was the primary product of PI3K and had all the hallmarks of a second messenger. The clarity of thought and the elegant approaches used in this study were inspiring and later prompted me to establish a collaboration with Len and Phill on PI3K-gamma as a drug target during my time at ONYX. So when I decided to return to the UK and set up my own lab, the first place I considered was Babraham; helped by a nudge from Len!

In 1996/97, the only thing I knew about the Institute was that it did great Signalling research. At that time Babraham to me meant, Len and Phill, Robin Irvine and Michael Berridge. But when I attended for interview, I met a few other people who I had never heard of before, including Denis Alexander and Wolf Reik.

Apparently, there was more to Babraham than Signalling; who knew?! I shake my head now when I recollect how callow and blinkered - or let’s say ‘focused’ - I was!

When I arrived at Babraham, I quickly realised that it was home to world-leading research in Immunology and Epigenetics, as well as Signalling. I had a lot of catching up to do! But I also realised that I had landed on my feet! Everyone was welcoming, the diversity of great science meant that there was always someone who could offer a unique perspective or practical help; and critically that help was given warmly and generously.

Babraham now and the next generation

The Babraham Institute is a place where we are not afraid to empower others to take the lead in their work, where we seek to nurture great talent and thereby great science.

As I reflect on the varied roles I have had at the Institute, there is one thing that has made it so special: the people. Their scientific curiosity, their encouragement, their support and willingness to pass on knowledge, skills and suggestions. I could list specific Cook lab publications that I am very proud of, or the successes of colleagues in other labs and departments, but the greatest highlight of my time at the Institute has been working with and mentoring the students, postdocs and staff scientists in my lab. For me, that has been the single most rewarding aspect of my time here, and my career to date.

With our new intake of PhD students joining the Institute this month, it reminds me that three or four years can pass very quickly. You get to see that person grow and develop as a scientist. Then in the blink of an eye, they are gone, out into the world to thrive in their chosen careers, whether that is within science or not.

I often hear reference to the ‘Babraham family’ and this is certainly a view I subscribe to. Whether by luck, design or natural selection, we have ended up with a team of people who want to do great science or enable others to do great science; people who are largely devoid of the destructive aspects of ego; people who place science quality above hubris and hype. The Babraham Institute is an open, inclusive and supportive place where we seek to value everyone’s contribution. Here, you have the platform to do great science without having to be cutthroat; a culture I am sure will see this family through the highs and lows of the next 25 years and beyond, as it has done so far.  Perhaps this is why so many people have stayed for the long haul?

A dynamic evolution

In the time I have been here, Babraham has changed beyond all recognition. Most notably with the launch of the Babraham Bioincubator in 1998 and the formation of Babraham Research Campus Ltd (formerly BBT) to manage the campus. Several rounds of significant investment from BBSRC and the government has resulted in a vibrant and thriving campus that is now home to the Institute and more than 60 small-medium enterprises with many cross-sector interactions and collaborations. It has been lauded by others as one of the most successful bioincubators in Europe.

The campus is hugely important to the Institute. It provides opportunities for us to work with some early-stage companies to translate our knowledge. This in turn empowers our research by giving us access to some very exciting technologies.

Babraham aerial shot 2021
Aerial photo of Babraham campus in 2021

But the Institute is also hugely important to the campus. We know this is one of the reasons that companies choose to locate here. Start-up companies can access our science facilities and use instruments that would otherwise be beyond their budget. They can also get access to our knowledge and form tangible collaborations to accelerate their programmes. There are many examples of this and the most successful collaborations are born out of mutual respect for each partner and what they bring to the table. Much like staff at the Institute, many companies have started on the Campus and decided to stay, to the extent that the Campus has evolved to provide space for companies to stay on site and grow. This is the ‘Babraham Family’ writ large across the campus.

The evolution of this vibrant community is far from static. As I keep the seat warm for our next permanent Director, who will undoubtedly have their own vision of where the Institute should go, it is my role to seize opportunities that come our way so that we can continue to conduct world leading bioscience in support of human health.

This post marks the launch of our new and refreshed blog. One of the reasons why the Institute is successful and a great place to work is because we recognise that the Institute is made up of many different constituencies. Having a more diverse blog stream will enable us to share a much wider sense of who we are, of how we can contribute to the wellbeing of our staff and the wider contributions we can make to society.

Everyone counts

Over 25 years it is apparent to me that Babraham is actually like any other family or indeed any other part of society; it’s full of all sorts of people. All have their own motivations and something unique to offer or contribute. Some challenge us but this is good; if we only ever listen to one ‘world view’ then we are limiting ourselves, our potential and our aspirations; and we are diminished. So we must support and embrace this diversity; it is perhaps our greatest strength as an Institute and as a Campus.