The Elements of Discovery
by Alan S. Brown
Oxford’s new Kavli Institute will create a welcoming culture to support research in nanoscience
When The Kavli Foundation endowed its fifth nanoscience institute, its new director, Carol Robinson, wanted to create the type of research center she would have liked to work at early in her career. It must be scientifically advanced, intellectually stimulating, and highly interdisciplinary. And its culture, if she had to describe it in a single word, would be, “kind.”
Robinson is one of Great Britain’s leading chemists. A past President of Royal Society of Chemistry, she was knighted in 2013 for her pioneering use of mass spectrometry to study the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Today, her attention is on cell membranes, which hold the key to delivering novel drugs (like the new messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines) into cells and to fighting antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
The Kavli Institute for NanoScience Discovery (INSD) at Oxford clearly promises to meet Robinson’s expectations for thought-provoking and even edgy science. It will focus on understanding the physical processes of cells—the machinery of life—at the molecular level.
To accomplish that, the institute is putting together an interdisciplinary team. It starts with some of Oxford’s renowned biologists and pairs them with the school’s leading lights in biochemistry, pathology, and physiology as well as chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics.
It will be a significant undertaking. Kavli INSD’s facility—the first new building at the university’s center in decades—will bring together more than 40 faculty and 400 graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and research staff.
Within the institute, Robinson plans to create a culture that is kinder than the research world of her early career.
“Many believe that if you are not in the lab until 10 p.m. or 2 a.m., then you’re really not working hard enough,” Robinson said. “I have worked at institutions where I felt very guilty if I wasn’t there all the time, weekdays and weekends. I feel that’s undue pressure, and a lot of the reason why women typically give up science. They take on other roles in life that are not compatible with that type of schedule.”
She felt these pressures keenly when she was younger. “I could never say that I had a childcare problem,” she said. “I would always make an excuse, say I had to stay home to get something fixed or to do something. I would never say that it was my child, because that would have been seen as a weakness.”
Oxford and academia in general have come a long way since then. Today, men often inform colleagues that they have to stay home with a sick child. And Oxford’s student body has grown more diverse, adding women, students from abroad, and those who do not come from the middle-class backgrounds that once defined science and engineering students.
Growing diversity is why Robinson wants to get the culture right from day one.
“People all do science in different ways, so it’s our job to create an environment that supports and nurtures them all,” she said.
Especially those who, like Robinson, began as outsiders.
Robinson was born in Kent, a region southeast of London, to a family whose children had always dropped out of school and gone to work at 16. She did not work very hard in high school until she took a chemistry class with an outstanding teacher. That did not keep her from dropping out at 16. But it did influence her decision to take a job as a lab technician at nearby Pfizer, working on what was then a new technology, mass spectrometry.
Those around her soon took note of her abilities and sponsored her for night school and for day release for college at a local college. Once she earned her chemistry degree, she went for a Master’s at University of Wales, followed by a Ph.D. in chemistry at University of Cambridge.
As a junior member of Oxford’s mass spectrometry group, she began studying how proteins fold and reshape themselves to interact chemically with other molecules. This was difficult to visualize because researchers were often in the dark about the structure of those proteins, especially when they bound with other molecules.
Robinson pioneered a way to turn that molecular soup into a spray and measure its properties using mass spectroscopy. This gave her the data she needed to understand their composition and structure. Her current work looks at how fatty molecules, or lipids, regulate the behavior of those protein complexes in cell membranes.
Her breakthroughs led Oxford to name her its first female professor of chemistry in 2001. Her work has also earned her nine honorary degrees and many distinguished awards.
“A lot of people think of Oxford as being all about the arts and literature and raising the next generation of Prime Ministers,” Robinson said. “But it is also very good at science, too. All you have to do is read the headlines about the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. There are many drugs that have come from trials at Oxford, that this is only a small fragment of what our researchers have done.”
Robinson has tapped into Oxford’s nanoscale expertise for Kavli INSD. The first wave of researchers will move into the new facility this April. The building is designed to encourage researchers to mix with one another. It has an open plan with a central atrium where investigators can have lunch or coffee and a rooftop for social events. Robinson has already begun to prime the pump by hosting virtual meetings between scientists in different disciplines, which she describes as “scientific speed dating.”
Robinson hopes this will jumpstart collaboration between the school’s diverse members, whose interests range from vaccines and antibiotic-resistant pathogens to the brain’s circadian rhythm and diseases such as Parkinson’s and cancer.
She is hoping, for example, that life science investigators develop a new appreciation of the data tools developed by physicists, mathematicians, and engineers can provide. She plans to use funds from the Kavli endowment to encourage that type of cross-disciplinary work.
She doesn’t foresee the institute playing it safe in the projects it funds. “Fred Kavli wanted his institutes to fund projects where researchers didn’t know what the answer would be,” Robinson said. “He wanted them to do transformative work. There are so many exciting new technologies coming down the track—like AI, bioinformatics, CRISPR gene splicing, new ways of measuring things—and we want to make sure we have the agility to respond to them to make a difference.”
Her plan will create an environment where Robinson — and many other early-career researchers — would have liked to work, providing the intellectual stimulation of advanced, interdisciplinary science. And it will do it without sacrificing kindness and diversity.