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Outside the Lab Profession, Training and education, Biochemistry and molecular biology, Genetics and epigenetics

Son of Babraham

Credit: The Babraham Institute

See our spotlight on research at the Babraham Institute here.

Simon Cook is modest when it comes to his director’s office in the Babraham Hall. The view from his office window in the site’s manor house is an immaculately maintained grass lawn and avenue of trees, an inherited benefit from the building’s first job as a country estate and a sight enjoyed daily by Cook, who is a keen birdwatcher. Today, it’s where scientists do work: The Babraham Institute.

Cook was never supposed to be Director of the Institute he’s belonged to for the last 26 years. The Institute has seen multiple long-run tenures of much-beloved and influential directors, the most recent of which was Michael Wakelam, whose time as head continues to echo in the warm words of his colleagues – and in the name of one of the site’s buildings. Wakelam passed away suddenly and tragically during the start of COVID-19 pandemic. His place was taken briefly by Wolf Reik before Cook tentatively stepped in to fill the position.

Internally, Cook’s office reflects his love of music and nature and his interest in current affairs. Sparse personal effects punctuate the walls and solitary bookshelf. On one side of the north-west wall hangs a poster of The Who’s album Live at Leeds. On the other side is a framed copy of The Evening Standard, a front page cover from 22 November 1990 that reads ‘THATCHER RESIGNS.’ 

It’s in this office where I spoke with him about the Institute, its history, and the plan for the future.

How do you balance the role of Director and being in charge of Signaling research?

The Board of Trustees asked me to take up the Director role for four years whilst we got through our funding review in 2023. But, in the meantime, I’ll admit it has been a bit of a juggling act. However, I’ve been supported by fantastic colleagues who don’t need me micromanaging them all the time. It’s very much a reflection on how great colleagues step up and take responsibility for themselves, which means that I can step back periodically and focus on wider issues.

And, as Director, I also have a great team behind me – our Chief Operating Officer, HR Director, and so on – many of whom have been at the Institute for a long time. I’ve been here 26 years so I have a very good understanding of its past, present, and future. Clearly, it is very much a team effort, but somebody has to sit at the top and sometimes make difficult decisions. For me, it’s a pleasure to help the Institute through the difficult period of losing Michael and subsequent changing leadership.

How did you first enter science?

I got into biology because I was always interested in the natural world as a child. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I was seven, I would have said the next David Attenborough or a National Park Ranger. 

When I was doing my A-levels, I found that I was interested in both biology and chemistry, so I ended up going to university and doing a biochemistry degree. Towards the end, I had lectures in signal transduction, which I found to be exciting and interesting, so I opted to do a PhD in that area – with Michael Wakelam, serendipitously. Around the end of my first year of my PhD, I realized that I really enjoyed research. 

After my PhD, I spent six years in California at a biotech company, initially as a postdoc. It was quite unusual to move into the commercial sector to do research at the time. They asked me to stay on as a staff scientist and a project manager. I learned a lot about drug discovery – mainly that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life, but it was a valuable experience. I value doing what we might call basic discovery science. At some point, I was made aware of opportunities to start a research group here at the Institute. I applied for and got a tenure-track group leader position, which is where you have 6 years to get a group up and running, secure additional funding and start sharing some research outputs. Being a group leader isn’t for everyone but it has worked out for me!

Beyond research, I am a strong advocate for our commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusivity at the Institute. This includes our summer Research Access Program here at the Institute for students from underrepresented groups. We seek to recruit students based on a number of criteria: they might be LGBTQ+, from an ethnic minority background, the first of their family to attend university, or from an economically impoverished background. We give them a research bootcamp to upskill them and make their CVs more competitive.

I identify with two of those criteria: my dad was a car mechanic, so I was state school educated, and I am the first in my family ever to go to university! But my family were very supportive and encouraging. 

Tell us more about Signaling at the Institute…

Our Signaling program was already world renowned before I arrived due to the work of Robin Irvine, Michael Berridge, Len Stephens, and Phillip Hawkins. That was the big draw for me – to come here and work with those brilliant people. I joined as a junior group leader and I stayed because it’s a very good place to work – both in terms of the science but also the culture. It is a place where people help each other out and support each other. Some institutes can be quite cutthroat. In the 26 years I’ve been here, Babraham has always been a supportive environment where young talent is nurtured. Some of that young talent – early career researchers – end up staying like I did. Some of them learn an awful lot here and then decide to move on to other opportunities. And that’s great as well; as far as we’re concerned, if we train people and they move on to bigger and better things, that’s a success for us. 

What current research at the Institute excites you?

All my colleagues are doing exciting work. I’m particularly excited about the work on proteostasis; we’ve built a critical mass of researchers in this space – to the extent that we feel empowered to launch a Proteostasis Network to bring the UK scientists working in this space together. It is increasingly clear that declines in proteostasis are an important driver of both aging and certain diseases. There lies an opportunity for us to translate our research by working with pharma and biotech on new therapies for certain diseases including cancer, neurodegeneration, and inflammation. 

Michelle Linterman, in particular, is leading fantastic work in our immunology program. Her research is trying to understand how our immune system declines with old age, using vaccination as a model. The events of the last few years have shown us a real-world example of the importance of a functioning immune system.

In epigenetics, Peter Rugg-Gunn is characterizing gene regulation at the earliest stages of embryological development. This is important not only for ensuring a healthy embryo and successful pregnancy, but also for ensuring healthy aging because we know that the information that dictates whether a cell becomes a muscle, a nerve cell, or other tissues is encoded through epigenetic gene regulation. Not only does epigenetic coding degrade with old age, but understanding how cell identity is determined and fixed is central to achieving the promise of regenerative medicine and stem cell-based therapies.

When it comes to signaling, my colleague, Hayley Sharpe, is undertaking pioneering work on a family of enzymes called protein tyrosine phosphatases. For a long, long time, these enzymes have not been well understood – and it’s only in the last few years that her unique approach is starting to transform this area. These enzymes are important in diabetes, the immune system, and in cancer. 

Frankly, there's a wealth of really exciting work going on in the Institute at the moment. I feel very lucky to witness it, let alone be the director!

What qualities make a good director?

I am the “continuity candidate”, but when we seek a new director I believe we should look for somebody with a vision that can be built on our acknowledged existing strengths; a vision that enhances and transforms our existing research. By its nature, you also need somebody who’s fairly advanced in their career – and a good manager of people as well as a great scientist. I’ve heard some scientists say, “I’m a scientist, I’m not trained in how to manage people!” But that’s a bit of a cop out. A lot of management is treating people the way you'd like to be treated yourself – that’s what I've learned on the job. And to be a director of a place like Babraham, you need to be inclusive and listen to people. Nobody has the monopoly on wisdom.

What unique challenges does Babraham face?

The Institute is committed to research excellence and over a number of years we’ve had to adapt and adjust our model to widen our funding income. Most of my peers would agree that the single biggest challenge is financial so it isn’t unique to us. Just as the cost of living crisis affects personal households, we’ve felt the squeeze. That said, we have implemented a range of cost-saving and income generation measures and I feel we’ve handled it as well as we can. This was recognized in our recent funding review where the quality of our science and our workplace culture was rated extremely highly by our strategic funder, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. 

We believe passionately in our science and also in the value of research institutes, where a concentration of expertise is brought together to tackle specific strategic challenges. Our discovery research is the bedrock of subsequent advances in drug discovery and healthcare interventions and so we are always promoting the importance of fundamental science. 

Another challenge we have, which applies to all institutes, lies in communication. We need to become much better at explaining to the general public what we do – and why we do it. If we’re being funded by the Government, we’re essentially being funded by taxation. We have a responsibility to make sure that the work we are doing is excellent and relevant to society – and that we engage society with it. We have to get the message across to everyone. 

Cambridge is an interesting place in that regard. The Institute is heavily involved in public engagement and outreach work – but in Cambridge we’re preaching to the choir! We’ve pondered this in recent years and we’ve changed our public engagement and outreach work. We are doing much more outreach in areas in the East of England with high measures of deprivation. Some of these schools and village colleges have never had scientists visit before. We believe passionately that the way to actually achieve a real impact in public engagement is to dedicate our efforts to reaching people who don’t normally hear from scientists. We’re democratizing our outreach work to reach people who wouldn’t normally be thinking about science due to lack of opportunities; and I identify with that approach. Our pipeline to support and inspire the future scientific workforce carries on from school students to summer placements for undergraduate students, apprenticeships, and our research access program to widen access to scientific careers for all..

What are your thoughts on your first two years as Director?

One thing the role offers is perspective. When you’re Director, you zoom out and start to notice the brilliant work across the whole endeavor. Through that macro lens, you actually see how the Institute functions. And it’s not only because of the great scientists, but also because of many other great people here – the unsung heroes who keep the institute running day to day.

I’ve been really excited about the new recruits that we hired in the last four years or so. Partly overlapping with my tenure as Director, we’ve recruited 10 new research group leaders, accounting for nearly half of the group leaders at the Institute – and it’s really revitalized our research. It has helped reinforce our research focus on aging and set a really exciting course for the future.

The Institute has had a remarkable track record in delivering breakthrough discoveries, and I'm absolutely convinced that this will continue. The last 20 years have also had an important impact in disease-related research, where we’ve used new funding sources to translate our research to other areas. I’m really proud of that. If there’s a message to finish on, it’s that we are very much a collaborative institute that works collaboratively with people across all sectors – other academics, people in the biotech and pharma sector, and clinicians. That’s the way it has been in the past and that will continue in the future.

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About the Author
George Francis Lee

Deputy Editor, The Pathologist

Interested in how disease interacts with our world. Writing stories covering subjects like politics, society, and climate change.

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