Biology at Lancaster - the first half century


26 March 2019 11:19
On the left, greenhouses and polytunnels, and on the right, space-age looking glass domes, all containing plants. In front of university office/apartment buildings
Air Pollution and Climate Change Unit in the 1990s

Collaboration, a broad education and the freedom to follow what fascinates you, has created a world class environment for study and research, say the people who were here at the start.

Fifty years ago the first students graduated in biology from Lancaster University. Amongst them was Mike Jones, now emeritus professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin.

Mike, one of the first year’s intake of science students, was attracted by the broad offering at Lancaster: “In those days it was unusual to do a biology degree, it was more common to do either a zoology or a botany degree, but a degree that was broadly across the biological sciences was pretty new.”

In the late 1960s animal and plant biology were considered separate subjects so bringing them together was controversial. It has proven to be ahead of its time, according to plant scientist Professor Terry Mansfield, one of the first academics to join the new biology department.

“What we have learnt since is that most of the biology for plants and animals is the same: at the cellular level, plants and animals have a lot in common.”

A new head for a new department

The first head of the new department was Donald Pigott, a talented young professor from Cambridge University, who had first class honours in botany, geology and chemistry and prizes in the first two subjects. He was a proponent of a broad approach, insisting on the importance of cell biology alongside studying biology at the organism and ecosystem level.

“To be a good biologist you have to know about the physiology of the organisms, you have to have some chemistry, some maths,” he insists.

Donald Pigott had been encouraged to apply for the job by the eminent climatologist Gordon Manley, a colleague from Cambridge University, who had already signed up to joining the new University, where he would create one of the world’s first environmental studies departments.

“We got on very well together and our interests overlapped. Geology, soil science and meteorology all have an influence on how plants and animals behave and I was interested in how plants, especially trees, respond to the environment in physiological terms. Our departments ended up in the same building and we did a lot of work together. This approach made it appeal to students.”

Getting into the field

Another appealing aspect to students, according to Donald Pigott, was a focus on field work. He took students on trips to Malham Tarn in the nearby Yorkshire Dales, where he and one of his geology colleagues were carrying out pollen analysis of the deep peat and underlying sediments, which date back to the ice age. This research was eventually published as the first paper in the new journal Field Studies.

“Some of the students had formed a nature conservation group and undertook and greatly enjoyed blocking deep drains which had been dug by the original owners in an attempt to make a grouse moor before it became a National Nature Reserve,” Donald remembers.

Lancaster’s location, between the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and Morecambe Bay, provided fantastic opportunities for field trips, as well as for recreation. This attracted staff as much as students.

Innovative teaching - moving outside your comfort zone

Professor Bill Davies CBE joined Lancaster University as a plant scientist a few years after it started, attracted by the opportunities it offered to study the biology of a “spellbindingly beautiful” region and the University’s innovative approach to teaching.

Charles Carter, the first Vice Chancellor, was a very prominent educationalist: he took forward the idea of independent studies, allowing some students to construct their degrees from material available in different departments across the University. All students in their first year took three subjects, their core discipline and two other subjects from anywhere in the University.”

Mike Jones chose environmental studies, taught by Gordon Manley, and economics. “I’d never done economics before, that was a new learning experience and some of the people that were teaching us were really top notch.”

The experience had a profound and lasting effect on his professional life.

“It has left me with a way of thinking and operating which I think is broader than many of my colleagues. It’s allowed me to believe that you can move into other areas and can be competent and make a contribution without feeling you don’t belong.”

Maureen Roberts, who was in the same year, took philosophy. “They actually recommended if you were a scientist you tried to do an arts subject and vice versa. It was good, because I wouldn’t have done anything like philosophy otherwise.”

The first cohort

Both Maureen and Mike felt a sense of adventure being at a brand new University.

“It seemed quite an exciting prospect to me to be one of the first students,” said Maureen. “I liked the set up, you came up the motorway and the uni wasn't even built, there was just a field and a big sign saying the University of Lancaster. Professor Pigott gave me the chance to study biology although I didn't have the correct A levels which were required for the subject in most universities.”

In the early years, both research and teaching took place in a converted warehouse in Lancaster City centre, while the new campus was constructed.

“It was a strange mix of people thrown together,” remembers Mike Jones. “The student community was quite small but socially and politically active. You got a group of young lecturers, some of them not much older than us, running this course for the first time.”

The first lecturer appointed was Colin Adams, a research student in animal physiology at Keele University. The second was Terry Mansfield and the third Graham Paxman, a geneticist and mathematician. They all helped to plan the courses and, along with the technicians, to select equipment and help the architects design the laboratories. In the next few years more lecturers in various disciplines arrived - a second professor (in Zoology) and then a third (in biochemistry).

“From the beginning the department was very successful in being awarded research grants,” Donald remembers. “It had an electron microscope unit run by a scientific officer, Ken Oates, with an international reputation. Research is part of the life-blood of teaching and can be an inspiration to students - as the saying goes ‘it is better to drink from a fresh spring than from a stagnant pool’.”

Terry Mansfield was 27 when he joined the staff. “It was my first proper job and I was appointed to teach statistics to biologists even though I had never had any formal education in statistics - I was just a scientist who had used statistics in research. Some of the other people Donald interviewed for the job were statisticians but he gave it to me, realising that I might have a better ability to communicate with biologists who could find statistics difficult. It was indicative of the imagination Donald had.”

Research - a creative approach

Donald Pigott’s imaginative approach to teaching and research was both unusual and inspirational, Terry explains.

“For centuries professors had ruled their departments with a pretty heavy hand. Donald’s only priority was to give his young staff every opportunity to do what they wanted to do, to develop their own research priorities and interests - he put no rein on our creativity at all. That was very important for the development of the department.

“That was reflected in the quality of the education. We displayed enthusiasm about our subject, which stemmed from the satisfaction we got from what we were doing in research. There was something very special about it, the feeling you had when you walked through the labs that things were happening.”

Students caught the young staff’s enthusiasm for their subject. “Because the department was so small we were part of it, when we got to our third year we were working in the research labs,” said Mike Jones. When he finished his degree, like several of his student contemporaries, Mike stayed on to do a PhD: his supervisor was Terry Mansfield, who was making good use of the freedom he was given.

“My PhD had been on stomata, which in the 1950s were terribly neglected,” said Terry. “There were only two or three of us anywhere in the world investigating them, even though they are primary sensors of land plants. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of work and make progress.”

Working with local farmers on air pollution

Terry was also developing an expertise in air pollution and plants, another neglected area. An opportunity to expand this interest came after the local secretary of the National Farmers Union approached Donald Pigott for help.

“He told Donald that his members on the Heysham Peninsula were worried about their hedgerows, which they believed were suffering from air pollution from the factories there. Donald asked me if I could take this on. It proved very interesting.

“When I looked at concentrations of pollutants they were really rather low, much lower than you’d expect to cause such damage. So something else must be happening. There were two types of factories, one emitting nitrogen dioxide, another sulphur dioxide, so the obvious speculative suggestion was that the two together did very much more damage than they would do separately.”

Terry got funding to investigate, first in a small way, but eventually was able to set up the Lancaster’s Air Pollution and Climate Change Unit. “It was by far most elaborate unit of its type in Europe. Eventually we were getting many millions of pounds to look at the impacts of air pollution and some of that research is still very important in relation to air pollution controls.

“The late Professor Alan Wellburn played a major part in this research, and the skill of departmental technicians proved invaluable. Several were recruited from the local area when the department began in 1964/5, and they completed their entire careers with us. Philip Smith, who sadly died two years ago, liked to claim he was a ‘founder member’ of the department.”

Terry’s work with farmers was a success, and the department built a reputation for collaborating with organisations and businesses outside the University, explains Bill Davies, who developed a long partnership with Waitrose supermarkets which flourishes to this day. Eventually this business friendly approach lead to the creation of the award winning Centre for Global Eco-innovation, which supports university and business collaboration.

In 1987 Terry’s pioneering work was recognised when he became Lancaster University’s first home grown Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s most prestigious scientific award.

Developing the biological sciences

In the 1970s the biology department pioneered another innovation, becoming one of the first UK universities to offer a degree in biological sciences. It was what attracted Professor Trevor McMillan, now vice-chancellor of Keele University, to join as an undergraduate in 1978. But he found it quite tough to begin with.

“I was quite phased by my very first lecture, given by Donald Pigott I think, which had a lot of bio statistics in it.”

Trevor chose chemistry and psychology alongside biology as his first year subjects and struggled with the chemistry, which he hadn’t done at A level. But he got into his stride, and in his second and third year started focusing on plant physiology as well as becoming fascinated by the emerging field of genetics. A project on fungal genetics and practical classes around Terry Mansfield’s stomata research were highlights of his time at Lancaster.

“Doing project work, you very much felt you that you were part of the research groups. In the genetics lab I was working alongside a post doc and a couple of PhD students. I still have some experimental photos I took as part of Terry Mansfield’s lab sessions that looked into the mechanism of stomata opening.”

When Trevor graduated he got funding to do a PhD on drug resistance and cancer in London, later running a Lab on radiation biology at the Institute for Cancer Research. Then in 1995 he saw an advert for a chair in development biology back at Lancaster.

“One of the reasons I was looking to move away from the Cancer Research Institute was because there was no teaching involved in my role there, so I didn’t have chance to pass on expertise on to next generation.

At 34, he knew he was very young to become a professor and that development biology wasn’t really his area of expertise, but he got in touch and was invited for a ‘chat’, meeting some of his old teachers including Terry Mansfield.

“They were ambitious to build up the biomedical side of the department, and offered me a job as a reader in cancer biology, funded by a recently formed charity to enhance biomedical research and links between the hospital and the university.”

Becoming a centre for biomedicine

He brought in significant research funding in his first year and set up the university’s first dedicated biomedical laboratory. Two years later he was made professor of cancer biology.

As well as involvement in teaching, Trevor found other advantages to being part of a multi-disciplinary institution. He formed a fruitful collaboration with plant scientist Nigel Paul, an expert in the impact of the sun’s UV radiation on plants. This partnership affected the path of his research, which became more focussed on the impact of UV radiation on humans, in particular its role in cancer.

Within a few years Lancaster was offering an undergraduate degree in biomedicine. “It was coming through as one of the things that students wanted to do,” Trevor explains. “It still had some of the core biological subjects including biochemistry and genetics but disease related modules turned into a bespoke degree programme.”

Biomedical research was expanding too. Trevor became head of department and in 1998 appointed a new lecturer, David Allsop, an expert in brain disease who had been working for Smith Kline Beecham. Like Trevor, David enjoyed working with colleagues in different disciplines.

“One of strengths of Lancaster proved to be that it is relatively easy to collaborate with people in different departments, I guess because it is quite a small university all based on one site, so it’s very easy to walk across campus and get these things going,” said David. “If you talk to a chemist or an environmental scientist they have very different ideas from you and that leads in different directions.”

David’s collaborations paid off, his research flourished, gaining funding and recognition. He worked with eye tracking expert, Dr Trevor Crawford in the psychology department on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease who introduced him to MAC Plc, a local dementia clinic, who have set out to take some new drugs patented at Lancaster into human clinical trials.

He forged a long-term and productive collaboration with Dr Brian Tabner, a chemist with expertise in detection of free radicals. More recently he has worked with Professor Barbara Maher, from the Lancaster Environment Centre, exploring the relationship between brain disease and air pollution: they identified, for the first time, a possible causal role for toxic magnetite pollution particles from diesel fumes and other forms of combustion in Alzheimer’s disease.

Two schools - the birth of the Lancaster Environment Centre

In the 2000s, biology at Lancaster was changing again and eventually the department was split into two. The biomedical and biological sciences joined up with the medicine related social sciences, such as palliative care, to form a new school.

“A scientific synergy brought all those things together,” said Trevor. “There was a greater focus on interactions with the NHS, which became the basis for starting the Lancaster Medical School.”

Ecology and plant science were brought together with environmental science and geography to form the Lancaster Environment Centre. 

“This was a really key decision,” Bill Davies maintain. "Many of the global challenges that now concern us are interdisciplinary in nature and while biology can make a key contribution to making things better, the thought that biology alone can solve a problem like food insecurity is unrealistic"

But flexibility remains, with students part of both departments and still able to choose any module.

Biology - the next half century

In 2019 there are plans to return to the original concept of a single biology degree that Donald Pigott pioneered half a century ago, spanning the subject from organism to molecular level.

Flexibility and choice for students, working with business, and collaboration between disciplines are still key aspects of the Lancaster approach to biology.

“The Biology degree at Lancaster continues to provide an effective grounding in molecular, cellular, organismal and community biology based on strong research in disciplines such as plant biology,” said Bill Davies who, like many of his colleagues, found Lancaster so appealing that he never left.

“The Lancaster Environment Centre has become very, very important on a world scale as an environmental institute,” says Terry Mansfield, who retired from the University in 2001. “I’ve watched with interest how it’s developed and I am very proud of my past involvement with Lancaster.”

Trevor McMillan, who eventually became pro-Vice chancellor for Research at Lancaster before moving to become vice-chancellor of Keele University, said: “There are very, very high quality people at Lancaster. It has managed to keep a balance between research being an individual initiative and having a collective strategic view of what is important and building up areas of strength, such as plant science.”

He believes Lancaster’s size, and the fact that it is a campus university, enables it to be flexible and respond quickly to changing circumstances, and also provides a good environment for students.

“There is something special about campus universities, and Lancaster combines that with research informed teaching which is an important aspect of how you can enthuse students.”

Those students, who have graduated in biology and related subjects in the past half century, have spread around the world and succeeded in many different fields.

“My fellow graduates have ended up all over the place,” says Mike Jones, “from working for the police in London to working for Lloyds Insurance as well as academia and in the environmental field. That was one of the advantages about the broad course, it wasn’t a straight jacket, it gave you the opportunity to think about doing a wide range of jobs and careers.”

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