Memories of Michael: championing equality and diversity
Nearly seven months since his passing, Michael Wakelam’s family, friends and colleagues still feel his absence keenly. Michael’s commitment to equality and diversity was felt throughout the Institute and beyond, and his impact is still evident. Here, colleagues in a variety of roles share their stories and reflect on how Michael created a more diverse and inclusive scientific culture.
I think there is nothing more fitting that I can say that will describe Michael’s approach to equality and diversity than to talk about my relationship with him: I am a woman, a mother, a mature woman on my third postdoc, and a foreigner from a third world country. These could have been obstacles but instead Michael made me feel appreciated and treated me as a peer. He entrusted me with the management of the Lipidomics Facility and made sure this responsibility came with support, mentorship, and always positive affirmation. Michael listened to my suggestions and respected the management decisions I made. I cannot think of a better example of Michael’s kind and gentle attitude towards everyone around him.
Michael did not care about people’s backgrounds or gender; he perceived people’s potential and took pride in mentoring, which was very close to his heart. He supported my application for a British Mass Spectrometry Society (BMSS) summer studentship in January 2020, which created an opportunity for a student to learn with us. We were successful and happy to receive 37 applicants in August this year. I was sad that he was not here to see how much his work has inspired a new generation of scientists. I am very glad I had him as a mentor, coach, teacher and, later, as a friend. Some of his last words to me, at a very difficult time in my life, were “I am your friend and you can always talk to me”. He is very well remembered!
I met Michael Wakelam when my colleagues at ASDO and I were working on the monitoring and evaluation of the Gender Equality Plans implemented across 10 EU-LIFE institutes within the LIBRA project. The Babraham Institute already had a long and consolidated experience in promoting equality, and Michael was an active testimonial of this effort to his fellow directors at EU-LIFE. Each time we visited the Institute, Michael always made time to meet us, and each time we had discussions which impressed us with his openness and self-reflection. He identified targets, acknowledged shortcomings and demonstrated insight and personal dedication.
Once, when we were visiting, we attended a meeting of the equality4success team at the Institute, and he was there, listening to others and discussing options. A team member, a student, later commented, “Just being able to go to a meeting where I’m the least senior person at the table and the most senior person in the whole institute is also at that table discussing equality as an issue, I think it is very important.” This stayed in my mind; I think that tells us something important about Michael, and about what Michael has given to the institute he directed for so long.
Marina Cacace, founding member of ASDO, a not-for-profit research institute devoted to gender issues
I first met Michael during my interview at the Babraham Institute. As a Director, he was keen to recruit me to further develop the healthy ageing agenda of the Institute. He was, from the beginning of my tenure, very supportive and fond of the model organism that my lab works on: C. elegans. My fondest memories of Michael are related to our long and exciting scientific collaboration where his insights on lipids influenced my work on how sensory stress regulates ageing in nematodes.
Michael also mentored me more widely. We talked about the history of science, family, and the challenges of leading a lab. He took great pride in mentoring and approached it with warmth and appreciation for each person as an individual. He was a fine scientist and his untimely passing precluded him from going back to the lab: he was looking forward to enjoying the rewards to scientific research once he stepped down from his directorship. I could never thank Michael enough for the support he offered me. I am forever grateful for his mentorship, collegiality and – to the extent that professional relationships allow – friendship. He is missed.
One of the most resonant passages from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for me is: “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies... A child or a book or a painting… or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there... The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching… The lawn-cutter might just have well not have been there at all, the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
I don’t know if gardening was one of Michael’s many talents, but he was most certainly the metaphorical gardener described by Bradbury. During his 13 years as Director, he changed the ethos of the Institute to align with his own beliefs. Chief amongst these was excellence in science, but he believed that excellence should be achieved with fairness, tolerance, integrity and equal opportunity. To support these ambitions, the Institute established an equality4success team, and employed a full-time equality4success manager. Consecutive Athena SWAN Silver Awards provide physical evidence of the team’s achievements, but perhaps more telling is the perception by staff of the working environment at the Institute: in our 2018 consultations, 100% of staff would recommend the Institute to others. Beyond his family, Michael’s legacy will be the place where his hand touched and where his ideals will be embedded and forever remembered by those who knew him.
Notes to Editors
Poppy flower grown in the gardens of the Babraham Research Campus.
News announcement 1 April 2020 - Michael Wakelam 1955 - 2020
Memories of Michael: a colleague’s tribute. Professor Wolf Reik, Head of the Epigenetics research programme, remembers Michael Wakelam. Published 21 April 2020.
Memories of Michael: a mentor, friend and director. Dr Simon Cook, senior group leader in the Signalling research programme, describes joining the Wakelam lab in Glasgow as a PhD student. Published 30 April 2020.
Memories of Michael: his contribution to EU-LIFE. Three EU-LIFE colleagues remember Michael’s influence and enthusiasm for the EU-LIFE alliance of research institutes. Published 7 May 2020.
About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.