Q & A with Professor Philip Ingham FRS
What have been the highlights of your career to date?
In terms of research achievements, the major highlights have been elucidating the Hedgehog signalling pathway in Drosophila and the discovery of the vertebrate Hedgehog genes. Although the name seems whimsical, Hedgehog signalling is one of the key processes that underlies the development of most animals, including ourselves. So unravelling how this fascinating pathway operates has had a major impact on our understanding not only of normal embryonic development but also on uncovering the molecular basis of various human congenital disorders and cancers. It was this work that was cited on my election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and it also played a big part in my being awarded of the Genetics Society Medal and the Waddington Medal. Other highlights include the establishment of the MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics at the University of Sheffield and more recently, my role, as inaugural Vice Dean for Research, in developing the research strategy at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. And it is always rewarding to see students and post-docs who train in my lab going on to establish their own successful research programmes.
What is your key area of research?
My research has always focussed on understanding the genetic control of animal development. Initially I pursued this using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster in which I studied the regulation of Hox gene expression along the anterio-posterior body axis of the embryo. Subsequently, I performed some of the key studies of the so-called segmentation gene hierarchy, which led to my interest in Hedgehog signalling. In the late 1980s I became one of the first investigators to adopt the zebrafish as an experimental system, an organism chosen because of its ideal attributes for genetic analysis. Fish produce large numbers of progeny and develop entirely outside the mother, meaning embryonic development can be studied non-invasively. We have used this animal model to continue analysing the Hedgehog signalling pathway – but we also study the genetic control of skeletal muscle development as well as various disease related processes.
What attracted you to join us as the Director of the Living Systems institute?
I recognised the position of LSI Director to be a one-off opportunity to be involved in something really innovative, a project to which I could contribute my years of research management experience - both in the UK and Singapore - and where my own research also could be enriched by the unique environment created by the LSI. Research in the life sciences nowadays involves the generation of masses of data and the only way of making sense of these is by using sophisticated computational methods. So it is essential for biologists to collaborate with mathematicians and physicists if they really wish to advance understanding. At the same time, experimental approaches are becoming more complex, requiring increasingly sophisticated instrumentation to probe biological processes at the nanoscale. To achieve this, biologists need to work closely with engineers, the kind of collaborations that will happen naturally in the LSI environment.
What excites you most about joining the University?
Working at a dynamic ambitious UK University, having new colleagues and collaborators, giving young and promising researchers the opportunity to pursue their passion. I am also excited to be re-joining the wider UK academic community, in which I still have many friends and which is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and impactful research environments in the world.
What do you see as the important areas of focus for the LSI in the short term and the long term?
The central mission of the LSI is to understand the molecular basis of disease. So a key focus should be on the major causes of death and disability in the UK: as well as the “big five” killers – i.e. cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke and liver disease, we are faced with an epidemic of chronic diseases, especially those related to obesity and mental health. And of course, we are facing the nightmare scenario of antimicrobial resistance, which could see the return of infectious disease as the principal cause of mortality. All this together with the threat to the food supply posed by plant and animal pathogens means that there will be no shortage of research topics to focus on! The key will be to identify areas where the unique environment and personnel of the LSI can make a real difference – and it will be essential not to lose sight of the value of basis research – many of the most important medical breakthroughs have come from curiosity driven research.
What challenges will we face together? / What keeps you up at night?
The biggest challenge will be to forge the interdisciplinary and creative environment that we all desire. As in other walks of life, success in science depends as much on personal interactions as well as on brilliant minds and bountiful resources. I will sleep easy if we can populate the LSI with dedicated collegial scientists who put the quest for understanding above their own egos.
LSI is one part of the Universities Research Strategy. What links would you like to have?
The LSI is, almost by definition, a multidisciplinary institute that will bring together researchers from the biological, medical and physical sciences as well as mathematicians and engineers. But I would also encourage interactions with the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as the Business School. One of the attractions of a University environment is the close juxtaposition of academics from across the disciplines – it is often through the interactions enabled by such proximity that the most unexpected insights arise.
Do you have any connections to the West Country?
None whatsoever – in fact I have only visited Devon and Cornwall three or four times, the first occasion being on a family holiday back in the 1960s. My first visit to Exeter was for interview as a prospective undergraduate and my next was for interview for the Director of the LSI!
What would like us to know about you that we can’t google!
I have a passion for history, first awakened in me at school by a wonderful teacher, but not indulged as frequently as I would like. But I love travelling and exploring the architectural and cultural legacies that have been shaped by trade, conflict and religious belief. I also love the countryside and have never fully suppressed my agricultural heritage.