Memories of Michael: a mentor, friend and director

Memories of Michael: a mentor, friend and director

Memories of Michael: a mentor, friend and director

Dr Simon Cook, Head of the Institute’s Signalling research programme and Head of Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation remembers joining the Wakelam lab in Glasgow as a PhD student and the start of a relationship that provided support and encouragement for over 30 years. This is the second remembrance article in a series that aims to draw together different perspectives from people who knew and worked with Michael.

I met Michael in January 1987. I had a 2.1 in Biochemistry from Royal Holloway College (London) in 1986 and was working for a year as the Student Union Welfare Officer. Despite dabbling in student politics, I had wanted to do a PhD in signalling after hearing Bob Michell give a guest lecture. Applications to other labs were met with polite letters saying ‘sorry we are only looking at people with a First.’  So I applied to Mike (it was always Mike, not Michael) and Miles Houslay, took the overnight train to Glasgow and turned up at the Biochemistry Department rather bleary-eyed.

The interviews with Miles and Mike went well; Mike in particular I really enjoyed; we spent as much time talking about politics as we did science. I felt we ‘got on’ so I was gutted when I got a ‘sorry but’ letter from the department. Each student had to interview with a third member of staff; I later found out that the third person I had interviewed with had vetoed me, saying I was involved in student politics and a trouble maker – both were true!

A few months later Mike sent me a letter (which I still have). His first year PhD student had dropped out. The studentship was available and it was awarded to him, not the department, so he could decide which student he wanted. Was I still interested? I joined the lab at the start of August, 1987.

I loved my time in the Wakelam lab. It was friendly, welcoming, irreverent, lacking in pretension and not very hierarchical. It was also frenetic! Mike could not walk slowly anywhere; he would hurtle down the corridor at great speed, spilling coffee and scattering people in his wake. This quickly became known as his ‘Headless Chicken’ impersonation. 

Mike was bursting with enthusiasm for science and it just rubbed off; he had also recruited key people who were similarly motivated and were also great and generous colleagues.  Key people in my first year were Sue Pyne (a postdoc) and Shireen Davies (a final year PhD student); later we were joined by Robin Plevin (a postdoc); they all taught me so much.  Sandra Gardener, Mike’s diminutive technician (but a force of nature) kept us on our toes. We shared the lab with Graeme Milligan’s group. It was never quiet; there was constant banter and jokes; the radio on or tapes playing; talking about science, politics, sport or music.

Across the corridor was Miles’ lab.  These three labs (Wakelam, Milligan and Houslay) made up the Molecular Pharmacology Group, housed on A-floor, the top floor. It was only later that I realised they were one of the key Signalling groupings in Europe.  I quickly noticed that whilst all the other labs clocked off at 5pm, we worked well into the evening and weekends. I never remember Mike or Miles telling me or anyone else that we had to work these hours, we just did it because we wanted to. Results were discussed in ‘real-time’ as they spewed out of the scintillation counter, and then digested over beers at the College Club or down on Byres Road. Everyone in the lab shared Mike’s excitement for science; we wanted to see the results; understand what they meant and plan the next steps.

There are two anecdotes (among many) which I should highlight, as they say a lot about Mike.

1.  When I started, I was supposed to purify Diacylglycerol kinase (DAG Kinase). However, I quickly realised: (i) I would spend half my PhD in the cold room, and Glasgow was cold enough already; (ii) Nobody in Mike’s lab at the time had purified an enzyme; (iii) Mike was obsessed with purifying the membrane-bound form of the enzyme (approx. 5% of the total activity) so my first purification step involved throwing away 95% of the enzyme! These were not good omens! Something had to change, but I couldn’t just say “I don’t want to do this!”

So, I decamped to the library for a week, reading and thinking, and then presented Mike with an outline, basically saying “I want to do this; it is more exciting!”. As an experienced supervisor myself, I now realise that this was probably a very arrogant thing to do when I had only been there 3-4 months! But Mike listened patiently, asked some questions and said “OK! Go for it!”. He was intellectually generous, kind and supportive; he allowed me the freedom to try something different and that was the making of me.

2. Despite changing my project, I reached a point near the end of year 1 when things were just not going well. I was working hard, trying different things, but there was little progress. I was frustrated, depressed, my confidence ebbed away and I came very close to quitting.

Both Mike and Graeme separately sat me down and encouraged me to persevere and stick with it, both expressing confidence in my abilities. These were key interventions. Mike in particular always made time to sit and talk and encourage; to put it simply, he cared; for me and for everyone in the lab and many more besides.

So I stuck at it and a few months later things ‘clicked’. Within 3-4 months I had gone from being on the verge of quitting to hoping I could do this for the rest of my life! A year later I was writing my first paper and working with Sue and Robin on others.

After I moved to California (for a postdoc in 1991) Mike visited and I recall an afternoon spent with him in the Napa Valley drinking wine. He was very encouraging of what I was doing in the McCormick lab.  When I moved to Babraham (in 1997) he gave me advice on grant writing and how to navigate some of the politics of UK science funding; most of my successful grants have been because of the ‘grantsmanship 101’ lessons he gave me.  And then he ended up at Babraham himself, where he supported and advised me in many ways, including during the death of my parents.

In Glasgow Mike saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. This wasn’t ‘PhD supervision rule book’ stuff. He cared about the work and the person; he encouraged, he gently pointed out shortcomings, he gave me the freedom to test my own ideas and he was there to help with setbacks and applaud success. He trained me up in all sorts of skills (lab and life) and set me on the right path. I now try and do the same with my own students.


Notes to Editors

Press contact

Dr Louisa Wood, Institute Communications Manager,

Image description

Urban city map of Glasgow. Shutterstock 795238354.

Additional/related resources:

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

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.