"I've jostled the system"

Image courtesy of the British Society for Immunology

Dame Bridget Ogilvie Hon FRSB explains how a dramatic encounter with parasitic worms inspired her journey from rural Australia to Cambridge, and a range of high-profile roles in UK science

The Biologist 64(6) p18-21

Dame Bridget Ogilvie's parasitology research explored how parasitic worms evade and modulate the body's immune response. Further, in her long career, she took on various roles in public engagement and science funding, most notably as director of the Wellcome Trust from 1991 to 1998. She was made a Dame in 1996 and appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia – the country's highest civilian honour – in 2007. She is now retired and lives in North London.

You grew up on a farm in New South Wales. What was that like and how does it compare to North London?

I was born just before the Second World War, so things were pretty simple. Nobody had much money; it was a pretty elementary kind of life. However, I came from a family with a long history of education, which was very unusual in that sort of environment. My father and grandfather actually both went to the University of Oxford, graduating from Balliol College. For my father, there was no question I wouldn't go to university, but his contemporaries thought he was extremely strange.

His bank manager called him in one day to say he should be spending all this money on fertiliser, not his daughter's education. My father told him: "It's the finest form of fertiliser I know!"

Although he went to Oxford, he was always on the land, like his father. And my brother did economics and still lives on the land in Australia, too. As they say, "you can take the boy out of the bush, but you can't take the bush out of the boy." I own a house with him and retain an interest in agriculture, and go back there every winter.

How did your childhood shape your interest in science and parasitology?

Working on the farm as a child, we spent enormous amounts of time pouring anthelminthics down the animals' necks. At the same time, vaccines against things like Clostridium had just come in, and you could vaccinate against it and the sheep would never get it again. So I would wonder what the difference was between these parasites, why the worms kept coming back.

I can remember very vividly the effect of liver fluke. We were moving a herd of young ewes and suddenly one of them just dropped dead. It looked fine on the outside, but when we opened it up, it essentially had no liver. There were so many immature forms of Fasciola hepatica that there were just a few fibrous bits of the liver left – they'd eaten the rest. That was really dramatic actually.

I also saw the benefits of science as a child – the application of sulphur and phosphate, which are often missing from the poor Australian soils, transformed the practice of agriculture. Once I began to study agriculture, all that came back and underlay my interest in science.

How did you go from there to studying parasitic worms at the University of Cambridge?

I started doing science at the University of Queensland, but I didn't like it and one day saw a flier for a new course on the science underlying animal production at the University of New England. The dean said if I passed my first year, I could join the second year. He was a vet and a very informal guy, and I remember him throwing his feet up on his desk and saying: "Yes! Do come, they are all men and if you come, that'll make the buggers work harder."

I thought that was a strange thing to say, but apparently there were often years when all the students were male and it was well known that when they had a woman in the class doing well they all worked harder. The average mark went up by 15% and stayed up – I was terribly amused by that. He was a seminal figure in my life who organised for me to apply for the first group of Commonwealth scholars. I was awarded one and came over to do my PhD at Cambridge.

You didn't speak hugely fondly of Cambridge...

I didn't fall in love with it, no. You had to live in colleges and there were only three that accepted women in the 1960s. They had very short terms and postgrads had to find somewhere else to live in between. So I quite quickly had a row with them over that and several other things. There were some wonderful people there, but I also found an enormous arrogance in a lot of people there, some of whom weren't of the same calibre as people who had taught me in Australia.
Of course, Cambridge has changed and I ended up as the high steward, which is in effect the deputy chancellor, and an honorary Fellow of Girton College.

You then went on to work at the renowned National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR). What are your memories of working there?

The director was Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel Laureate, and he supported the parasitology department very strongly. We had a deeply eccentric head of division, Frank Hawking, Stephen Hawking's father. He was incredibly awkward – gosh, there are plenty of stories about him – but he taught us how to write a scientific paper. I knew Stephen Hawking distantly at Cambridge, actually – we did our PhDs at the same timeWe'd meet for lunch in the graduate school – most of us went there to escape our scientific problems, but he would bang on about his.

At NIMR lots of us were interested in this question of why parasites persisted. The most seminal work there was done by Neil Brown, who was really the first person to show that malarial parasites undergo variation. Neil did the most elegant experiments showing that there were waves of infection, and each wave differed in the surface antigen that was displayed. He was initially laughed at when he said that is why human malaria persists.

Aside from surface antigens, how else do parasites evade the immune responses of their hosts?

What's been shown subsequently by Rick Maizels is that the parasite produces molecules that redirect the immune response, interfering with the way it develops not just to itself but also non-specifically. Rick and his group are among the leading figures in working out how this happens – how it affects the immune response more generally – trying to explain this long-known thing that people exposed to helminths don't seem to get asthma as much.

All I really did was to define the enormously complex immune response in the parasites I worked with. The first contribution I made, which was published in Nature, was to show that helminth parasites produce enormous quantities of immunoglobulin E, which was novel at that time. Then I started to look at the surface antigens in Trichinella spiralis and found that each stage had a different surface antigen.

Bridget Ogilvie honF BSIDame Bridget receives an Honorary Fellowship from the British Society for Immunology. She is also an Honorary Fellow of the RSB. 

Tell me about how you made the move from research into science administration and funding.

I met Peter Williams, the director of the Wellcome Trust, at the wonderful Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como. The place hosted meetings and had 'scholars in residence' – academics who were working on books would spend the last month or so writing at this gorgeous villa.

Peter could see I was restless and he was looking for someone to run his tropical medicine programme. He knew that people like me who are really keen on research think administrators are lesser folk, so he tempted me to come and do it on a part-time basis. And I had a whale of a time – they had labs in Jamaica, the Amazon, Kenya, south India and Bangkok. My job was to wander round the world and see how they were getting on.

Eventually, I realised I was really getting more buzz out of seeing my PhD students getting on well. The Wellcome Trust gave me other responsibilities and I realised that if you have money you can do a hell of a lot to help people with their careers.

Many scientists I've interviewed seem to have had these pivotal moments in their career when a chance meeting, or speculative letter, leads them down an entirely new route. Do you think those informal opportunities are still available or have career paths in academia become more rigid?

I'm sure they are still out there. Competition is much greater now and people are less free to do things on their own. Teamwork and collaboration are crucial, and you need access to a whole lot of different skills. The trouble is that if you do work that spans disciplines, you have trouble getting it funded. It's a very serious problem in science, actually – how you deal with people with feet in different camps.

It's one of the aims of the new UK funding body, UKRI, isn't it? To try to connect the funding bodies from different disciplines.

Yes, it is. We'll see. One hopes it can, because it's crucial. That's the way science has gone. I used to always try to remind people that it's the cutting edge between two disciplines where a lot of really novel things are discovered – like parasitology and immunology.

For someone who was a reluctant administrator, you became director of the Wellcome Trust...

It was tiny when I started there in 1980: there were only about 25 staff from the cleaner to the director. The annual spend was about £11m. I think it's now about £1bn. When I decided to join full time, I was very quickly put in charge of developing a policy for spending and eventually I became director when Peter retired.

You can do a lot for the scientific community in that sort of position if you listen to your former colleagues. And I had an extraordinary time – developing the Sanger Centre, which is now the Wellcome Genome Campus, was probably the defining event of my time as director and it was just amazing.

It went on to have such an important role in the human genome project.
Yes, I think it did about a third of it. And many of the Americans wanted to privatise the whole project, but that was just impossible with Wellcome's involvement.

You've held roles focused on public engagement and science communication, too. It's discussed more than ever these days, yet we also seem to be in an era when mistrust and misunderstanding of science is rife. Where do you think science communication is at?

I think it's worse. When I was a child everyone thought science was terrific – it was wonderful to be a scientist, special. Look what happened with GM. And just recently it was announced that teachers in Turkey have to teach intelligent design. That's really dangerous. The Australian government doesn't believe climate change is caused by human activity. Talk about evidence-free government – it's shocking out there.

I think, actually, people are rarely interested in science, it's the technology that results from it. No-one wants to know about the fine details of what's inside cells, but it's more needed than ever – and we need to be much more shrewd about how we do it.

All scientific institutions now are really aware of this and how much communication we should do is a major discussion at the Royal Society. Should people who receive Society funding be compulsorily asked to communicate what they do? Well, there are people who I'm afraid should just never be asked to do that, as they are no good at it.

You've also worked on projects focused on supporting women in science. It's interesting to hear you weren't tuned into the issues facing female scientists for many years.

Yes, from being a small child, there was just no argument about men and women being treated differently, and we had great role models on both sides of my family in the previous generation. I didn't experience any problems in my career and didn't come across this prejudice, except in Australia.

What turned me on to it was being asked to talk to a panel of biology professors meeting in Glasgow in the mid-1980s. I turned up and there were about 60 people in the room and I was the only woman. I also went to the Royal College of Gynaecology and Obstetrics and, again, I was the only woman in the room. It made me think I had better get engaged with this issue.

Getting women to apply for grants and jobs at the time was key. If women applied, they were as successful as men. But if there were 10 skills listed in a job advert, some men would apply if they had one of them, whereas women wouldn't if they had one missing, to put it extremely. And then there is the salary issue. This can only be dealt with if the person at the very top decides they will not have discrimination between women and men in science.

You don't seem to have let the system jostle you around. What advice would you give to an early career researcher hoping to maximise their potential and find new opportunities?

Yes, I've jostled the system! My advice would be to find a senior person who is young-person friendly. It's vital to find mentors who will be supportive and will listen to you. You have to encourage them to keep coming back to you, not just see them once. Find someone you like, and that may not necessarily be your PhD supervisor. I would hope institutions are rather better at looking after their young people and that organisations such as the RSB are helping in that regard.