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Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience

Professor Sarah Guthrie

Sarah Guthrie

Job title

Professor of Developmental Neurobiology

Department/Division

Developmental Neurobiology

Date started at King’s

1989 – 2016


Challenges and achievements

When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?

I did a Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge, studying at Newnham College. Having initially seen myself as a marine biologist, I was surprised to find that I was fascinated by embryonic development, taught inspirationally by Peter Lawrence, Mike Bate and John Gurdon (now Nobel Laureate). One experiment that was described showed that developmental patterning depended on cells communicating via gap junctions. I wrote to the researcher involved to see if I could do a PhD with her, and subsequently joined the lab of Anne Warner at University College London. 

What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area? 

After my PhD with Anne, I went to the USA for a while and then returned to do a postdoc with Andrew Lumsden at Guy's Hospital, working on hindbrain segmentation. I saw that hindbrain motor neurons grew in a beautiful patterned way, suggesting that they were following environmental cues. As the first axon guidance molecules were being identified around this time, working on the guidance of motor neurons became a natural progression. Now my lab works on motor neuron development, disorders of the ocular motor system in humans, and motor neuron disease.

Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding. 

I'm excited about our recently published work on the ocular motor system and human eye diseases. We're using animal models including the zebrafish to model human eye movement disorders, and relating the effects of gene mutations in alpha2-chimaerin to nerve wiring defects. A current project on the formation of motor neuron clusters is also starting to uncover the relationship between molecular mechanisms and spontaneous activity in development. In education, I've also really enjoyed organising the hugely successful BSc programme in Neuroscience, and fostering the development of our students.

Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?

Anne Warner was an interesting role model and chain smoker who left her fag ends on the electrophysiology rig. She always had time for me, and I remember emerging from her office after many a robust 3 hour discussion of my thesis data. Inspiration also came from Andrew Lumsden, who taught me never to give up. My other role model was my mother, who came from a poor background in Liverpool to get into Cambridge and went on to become a Zoology lecturer in post-war Leicester. Her frustration at having to give up her career when she had children made me resolve to persist in science.

What if any support has most benefited you in your career?

A few supportive colleagues and friends have been important, some jokes to diffuse the negativity I have sometimes encountered, and the enduring willingness of a few individuals to go to the pub when things got really difficult. In recent years my Newnham alumnae network has been really helpful in giving practical suggestions to tackle the glass ceiling.

What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s? 

Although people complain about academic life, it’s actually hugely flexible and enjoyable. You can follow your interests, and the goals are mainly long term, so to some extent you are your own boss. Getting a project to work and seeing new experimental data is still a thrill, as well as dreaming up a new project and (hopefully) getting it funded. Fostering students and seeing them blossom during their degree programme is also a great privilege. I’ve got a lot from my teaching co-ordination role, and am really starting to see how a University works. 

How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?

I think it's very difficult due to the lack of support, especially for my teaching role. 50% of my time is spent doing tasks that could be done by an administrator; the Academic Centre is fantastic but completely over-stretched. As a Head of Department the large number of committees makes it difficult to find time to focus on research and think about things creatively. I find that having manageable goals and breaking tasks down into smaller components is a good way of trying to get things done.

How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?

I think it's extremely difficult and I find it more difficult as the children get older. The reason I got my Professorship was that I had an outstanding childminder who cared for my two children for many years. Now that the children are older, they have ever more complex lives which need more management. I think it's important to spend money on help with childcare and the house. I also need to try to switch off email in the evening and at weekends. But at times there are conflicts, that's unavoidable.

What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?

I think it's extremely difficult and I find it more difficult as the children get older. The reason I got my Professorship was that I had an outstanding childminder who cared for my two children for many years. Now that the children are older, they have ever more complex lives which need more management. I think it's important to spend money on help with childcare and the house. I also need to try to switch off email in the evening and at weekends. But at times there are conflicts, that's unavoidable.

 

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