A year in review: Institute highlights 2021
As 2021 draws to a close, we have been reflecting on some of our achievements from the last 12 months. The Institute is immensely proud of the way that our staff have continued to pull together, and the work we have managed to achieve despite another challenging year. While there has been many exciting research publications, collaborations, projects and more from our Institute community, here are just 21 of the collection of highlights from 2021:
1. How yeast is reshaping ideas on ageing
Healthy ageing is one of society’s most pressing concerns, but basic questions like why we age remain a mystery. Dr Jon Houseley, a group leader in the Institute’s Epigenetics programme, studies the ways in which yeast cells adapt to new environments. As well as uncovering new connections between adaptation and ageing, his research is challenging our ideas about ageing itself.
2. Back to basics
Setting up a new group is exciting and daunting. Two group leaders who joined the Signalling programme in 2019 – Dr Hayley Sharpe and Dr Rahul Samant – talk about their research and the supportive, collaborative and open environment that they say marks out the Institute.
3. Responding to the COVID-19 crisis
As well as exposing weaknesses in healthcare systems and supply chains, the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of fundamental research and collective effort. During 2020, scientists rose to the challenge of developing new vaccines and effective treatments for Covid-19. Institute immunologists Dr Michelle Linterman and Professor Adrian Liston describe how their labs responded and the lessons we must learn.
4. Embedding open science and responsible research at the Institute
From May 2017 to September 2021, the Babraham Institute has been involved, together with eight other life sciences research performing and funding organisations from across Europe, in the Horizon 2020 project ORION Open Science. The overarching goal of the project was to embed open science and responsible research and innovation principles in the policies, practices and processes of participating organisations and to inspire others. The outputs from the project have been many and diverse, but at an Institute level, we developed our Open Science action plan as well as a handful of other cocreation projects.
5. Prizes awarded for outstanding achievements at the annual Lab Talks
This year saw the return of our annual Lab Talks event. To round off the two-day event, prizes are awarded for research excellence, knowledge exchange and commercialisation, public engagement, supporting equality and diversity, and creating an engaging scientific image.
6. Promoter Capture Hi-C: from academic tool to £1.5M start-up
Fundamental research is vital for science and society. Many medical and technological revolutions are rooted in basic research, yet those roots can be hard to trace. Today, spinouts are key to turning academic bioscience into healthcare treatments. Dr Stefan Schoenfelder, a group leader in the Institute’s Epigenetics programme and co-founder of Enhanc3D Genomics, discusses taking a tool developed for fundamental research and building a business around it.
7. The Babraham Institute joins Green Impact programme
The Babraham Institute, and other organisations from across the Babraham Research Campus, have launched their participation in the ‘Green Impact’ programme to reduce the environmental impact of their operations and activities. Green Impact is a multi-award winning programme for environmentally and socially sustainable practice, delivered by Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS-UK). Over the coming year, the organisations will use a bespoke action plan to continue driving efforts to be more sustainable.
8. The Spatial Mouse Atlas: new insights into cell fate
High-resolution gene expression maps have been combined with single-cell genomics data to create a new resource for studying how cells adopt different identities during mammalian development. Cell fate decisions determine how cells develop into different cell types. The development of different cell types eventually leads to the formation of all the different tissues in the body. This complex process involves many different signals from surrounding tissues, as well as mechanical constraints, epigenetic modifications and changes to gene expression. These factors create unique cell and tissue types, which eventually give rise to all major organs in a process called organogenesis. This study, published in Nature Biotechnology, combines scRNAseq data with spatially-resolved expression profiles to generate an atlas of gene expression at single-cell resolution across the entire embryo.
9. Welcome to our new Group Leaders
In 2021, we had some fantastic new group leaders and honorary group leaders join us. We also look forward to welcoming the others to the Institute in early 2022! We are delighted to welcome Dr Ian McGough, Dr Philipp Voigt, Dr Sophie Trefely, Dr Della David and Dr Teresa Rayon to the Institute as Group Leaders. We are also thrilled that this year Prof Valerie O'Donnell and Prof Kathy Niakan have joined us as honorary Group Leaders.
10. Our refreshed Institute blog was launched!
This year our Institute blog was given a little makeover. We added four new categories to our new look blog; Institute Life, Institute Research, Careers and Green Labs, to complement the three pre-existing streams of Public Engagement, Knowledge Exchange and Equality and Diversity. This means we can now share more diverse stories from more diverse voices from across the Institute.
11. New Trustees join Babraham Institute Board
The Babraham Institute has made four new appointments to the Institute’s Board of Trustees this year. These are Professor James Briscoe FMedSci FRS and Professor Peter Parker FMedSci FRS, both research group leaders at the Francis Crick Institute, Professor Gordon Brown FMedSci FRS from the University of Exeter, and Alexandra Pygall, a partner with law firm Stephenson Harwood.
12. A remarkable partnership
Great science depends on teamwork, yet genuine partnerships are rare, especially those which sustain success over decades. Dr Len Stephens and Dr Phill Hawkins, both group leaders in the Institute’s Signalling programme, have worked together for more than 30 years. Here, they reflect on their research, their relationship – and their distinctly different approaches to fishing.
13. Meet some of the scientists behind our research
Funded by the Public Engagement Seed Fund, Jo Montgomery launched the Scientist Stories video series. In each video, you get to meet one of the researchers behind our science, learn more about their work and discover how they got to where they are today. Videos feature colleagues at all levels and each of them have unique journeys and advice to share with many more to come in 2022!
14. Autophagy experts collaborate to hunt down potential drug targets to tackle neurodegeneration
A new collaboration from the Milner Consortium is bringing together academics across eminent Cambridge-based research groups to look for potential drug targets to treat a key process that could fight neurodegeneration – autophagy. Researchers from the Babraham Institute, the ALBORADA Drug Discovery Institute, and the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit will combine their expertise to pursue the most promising data in their search for targets.
15. A showcase of our cutting-edge science facilities
Underpinning our world-leading research are nine science facilities. We have recently finished our facility video series showcasing the unique capabilities and expertise of each of our facilities that support our researchers at the Institute, across the Babraham Research Campus and beyond.
16. The Babraham Research Campus receives funding for barrier-busting PhD programme
Babraham Research Campus Ltd, which develops and manages the Babraham Research Campus, and the Babraham Institute have secured funding for fifteen PhD studentships from UKRI-BBSRC as part of a Collaborative Training Partnership (CTP). Through a tailored programme of skills training and scientific and industry supervision the partnership will produce a cohort of bioscience researchers equipped with excellent research skills and commercial know-how. Not only this but we have welcomed our latest cohort of PhD students whose journeys we are excited to follow, and launched the recruitment for our 2022 intake of students, including the first five of these CTP studentships.
17. New Epigenetics escape room created
The Epigenetics Escape Room is a brilliant new resource to engage public audiences with epigenetics. The team adapted their plans for an in-person escape room to create the online version, which had great success as part of the 2021 Cambridge Festival with over 500 individuals trying out (and solving!) the puzzles.
18. A continued commitment to our technicians
The Institute became a signatory of the Technician Commitment in 2019. In making this commitment, we pledged to work towards the visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability of our technical staff. This year we shared our action plan, as well as see our technical colleagues given recognition at the first Research Institute Technician Awards (RITAs).
19. The essential element
Oxygen makes up 21% of the Earth’s atmosphere and plays a pivotal role in biological systems. Despite this, huge gaps remain in our understanding of how this essential element regulates cell signalling pathways and affects our immune system – questions that Dr Sarah Ross aims to answer.
20. Settling the score on immune cell receptor function
In a healthy immune system, B cells cut and paste together a couple of hundred genes in multiple different combinations, to produce the millions of different antibodies we need to identify and respond to each unique infection. Then, the B cells with the best match multiply to neutralise the threat. Research from the Corcoran lab explains how the IL-7 receptor is key to producing as diverse a range of antibodies as possible, in addition to its more understood role in immune cell proliferation. This detailed understanding of B cell biology in mice provides a way of learning more about what happens in the human immune system, helping our understanding of immunodeficiencies and the effects of age on the immune system.
21. Mitigating the impact of lab long term leave
Any time away from the lab has an impact – on the research, on the lab, but in particular on the career progression of the person away from the lab. There are many reasons for long spells away, but most commonly it is because of maternity leave thereby disproportionately affecting the careers of talented female scientists.
The Babraham Institute has developed a novel approach to supporting the research, the lab and importantly the scientist on leave. We have recruited a Roving Researcher, not to replace those on leave, but to support their science so that the research momentum is maintained during the absence. Dr Melanie Stammers is Babraham’s Roving Researcher and when first in post in April 2020, she supported the research of Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, a BBSRC Discovery Fellow.
Season's greetings from all of us at the Babraham Institute. See you in the new year!