Memories of Michael: a person and scientist to remember

Memories of Michael: a person and scientist to remember

A year on from the loss of Michael Wakelam, the Institute still feels his absence keenly. In this remembrance article to coincide with the first anniversary of Michael’s passing, Head of the Lipidomics facility Andrea Lopez-Clavijo shares her memories of Michael as a line manager, mentor, and friend and reflects on how his influence has been carried forward through the facility’s interactions and activities.

During my three years of working alongside Michael at the Institute, one of the things that struck me most about Michael was his positive presence. He provided me with the guidance and support that I needed in my role as manager of the facility. He said to me on my first day: “My door is always open, come and see me anytime.” This worked really well despite Michael being the Institute’s Director. I remember as if it were yesterday going to his office and feeling comfortable, like being at a friend’s house. There was no stress, no daunting thoughts, just sitting down and discussing results, lipid metabolism, and the all-important translation of the results into biological meaning; lipidomics! 

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Post it note with writing

Other moments also stick in my memory, like the time when he wrote, from memory, the Blight and Dryer (B&D) extraction. I still have the little post-it he wrote. At that time, we were discussing whether or not, for some lipid sub-classes, it made any difference at all to the lipid recovery levels if we used the B&D or Folch methods. We both liked challenges, so he would say: “Prove me wrong!” Of course we did, not to prove him wrong, but to improve our knowledge of the lipid subclasses we now detect. In fact, we found that it made no difference to the recovery levels for glycerophospholipids. Our conversations challenged our creativity and the way we approached the laborious lipid analysis. Michael made us feel good about what we were doing and why we were doing it, giving us space and time to experiment.

Other conversations with Michael, whilst we were discussing results, would test his knowledge on lipid metabolism and he would then draw biosynthetic pathways from memory. Michael dreamt of the development of a bioinformatics tool that integrated lipid metabolism with lipid profiles by comparing and visualising any changes that have occurred from a ‘before’ sample to an ‘after’ sample. He called it BioPAN (Biosynthetic Pathway Automated Analysis). BioPAN was being set up as a free access software tool at the time of Michael’s passing, so we (the Lipidomics and Bioinformatics facilities) took on the task of having it finalised and free on the LIPID MAPS Lipidomics Gateway website, at https://www.lipidmaps.org/biopan/. BioPAN, which finds strong relationships between lipids as substrates and products catalysed by active or supressed enzymes, is Michael’s gift to the global lipidomics community. 

Michael believed in giving everyone equal opportunities to learn and explore, supporting Open Access publications and techniques.  In this spirit, an Open Access software application note using BioPAN was published early this year. Michael also believed in transferring his love for lipids and mass spectrometry to the next generation, supporting our application for a summer studentship early in 2020, with funding from the British Mass Spectrometry Society  With their support we hosted Ethan to work on a project analysing around 15,800 lipid molecular species in collaboration with Karen Steel from King’s College London. We learned from Michael’s mentorship and aimed to provide Ethan with an encouraging, welcoming, supportive, and positive atmosphere in which to learn. You can read about Ethan’s experience in his blog post: A Virtual Summer Studentship with Lipidomics

Michael greatly encouraged frontier research and he established collaborations internally at the Institute, within the UK, and around the world. One of these collaborations produced a paper in 2019, with Jane McKeating from Oxford University, where we proposed that the selective loss of mono- and di-unsaturated phosphatidic acid species might have a major effect on membrane structure and hepatitis C virus (HCV) entry and replication. 

We have continued Michael’s legacy by establishing a special interest group in lipidomics, with support from the British Mass Spectrometry Society. We are very grateful to all the people from the Institute, the LIPID MAPS consortium, the lipidomics community in the UK, and around the world that are supporting this initiative. Our first session included an in memoriam of Michael on the first year anniversary of his passing by Professor Ed Dennis from the University of California San Diego. In 2022 and beyond we hope to continue holding virtual and face to face events at different venues.

As part of celebrating Michael’s 40+ years academic career we have written a chapter for the 7th edition of the Biochemistry of Lipids, Lipoproteins and Membranes (BLLM) book, which is an introductory (20+ chapter) textbook that is primarily directed at senior undergrads, graduate students, and individuals looking for an introduction to different aspects of lipid metabolism. Back in early 2020, when Michael asked us to write the chapter with him, little did we know what was about to happen. Coincidentally, the book is to be published in April 2021. I could write endlessly about the memories that writing this document has brought to us, but this document represents a thank you for Michael’s encouragement, guidance, wisdom, and friendship.

I cannot forget Michael the person, always warm and smiling. He made time to be at every internal scientific talk and was a supporter of the Babraham Campus Social Club. At the social club bar, he was always Michael, not the Institute’s Director. He would always ask people how things were going, not about work but family. Michael had an amazing memory, for names, faces, and of course the science. We could talk with great sadness about Michael’s passing, but our message is of gratitude and to celebrate Michael’s memory as a human being, parent, brother, friend, husband, colleague, Professor, leader, and scientist, with an exceptional love of lipids and mass spectrometry.

He is sorely and truly missed!

 

Notes to Editors

Press contact
Dr Louisa Wood, Institute Communications Manager, louisa.wood@babraham.ac.uk

Image description
Michael Wakelam in the Babraham Institute Lipidomics facility. Image courtesy of the Cambridge Independent.

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.
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, Luis Serrano, Michela Bertero and Marta Agostinho, remember Michael’s influence and enthusiasm for the EU-LIFE alliance of research institutes. Published on 7 May 2020.
Memories of Michael: how a chat turned into a collaboration and a career path. Dr Simon Rudge, a senior researcher in Michael’s research group, recounts a serendipitous first encounter with Michael, leading him to join the Wakelam lab. Published on 20 May 2020.
Memories of Michael: championing equality and diversity. Colleagues in a variety of roles across the Institute share their stories and reflect on how Michael created a more diverse and inclusive scientific culture. Published 23 October 2020.

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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.