Name: Professor Jeff Errington
Age range: 58
Research institution: Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, Newcastle University
Research career length: 36 years
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Location: Newcastle, England
Brief summary of research: Bacterial cell and molecular biology. Interests lie in the molecular basis for cell wall synthesis, cell shape, chromosome segregation and cell division
A-levels: Mathematics, Physics, Biology
BSc in Genetics/Zoology at Newcastle University
PhD in the genetics of a bacterial plant pathogen at the University of Greenwich and East Malling Research Station
Postdoctoral research at University of Oxford
Professor of Microbiology in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford
Professor of Microbiology and Director of the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, Medical School, Newcastle University
Founder of two successful commercial ‘spin-out’ companies
Jeff Errington wonders whether his teenage shyness may have narrowed his options for university. However, as a professor at a leading research institute and a Fellow of the Royal Society, his early reticence has not prevented him from achieving a highly successful research career.
I'm interested in asking questions about cells. How do they grow? What determines their shape? How do they replicate and divide their genes? I study these problems in bacterial cells because they are simple and easy to use in experiments. The knowledge we gain is relevant to understanding disease-causing bacteria, and in discovering and developing new kinds of antibiotics.
My first career choice as a professional footballer was never going to fly, but my father was interested in birds, and as a teenager I took to breeding budgerigars as a hobby. I became fascinated by the genetics of plumage colour and pattern, and decided I wanted a career in research. No-one in my family had ever been to university, so this was a high aspiration. I was shy or naïve and didn’t seek advice as to how to achieve this goal. So I chose my A-levels based on interest, not realising that this would affect the choices on offer.
I went to Newcastle University where I studied genetics and zoology, and was successful enough to pursue a PhD. After my undergraduate degree, I took a gap year to travel, and earn money to learn to drive and buy a car. I thought that I had a great PhD place lined up in Edinburgh, but this fell through and I was left to find a project at short notice in the summer. I had to move to London which was good for me, as it forced me to be independent, and although the project was not particularly successful, I learned a great deal about research.
I worked hard and learned to become organised. The defining moment of my career was an enthusiastic response to an application for a postdoc at Oxford. The initial contract was only for two years, but I ended up staying for 25, eventually becoming Professor of Microbiology at the famous Sir William Dunn School of Pathology. I am indebted to my mentor, Professor Mandelstam, who guided me through the key steps to independence, and successes beyond the wildest dreams of a teenager from working class Gateshead. At Oxford, I became aware that some of the research was relevant to the discovery and development of new antibiotics so I set up a spin out company, which developed two novel classes of antibiotics that are now nearing clinical development. At its peak, the company employed around 50 people before it was eventually acquired by a large Australian biotechnology company.
In 2005, I decided to move back to Newcastle, as Director of the new Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences with well over 300 staff and graduate students, including about 45 academics. I have since set up another spin out company and I spend about one day a week either discussing science with employees or commercial matters with the company’s Board Members or potential partners and investors.
Scientific research uses an approach that is applicable to all walks of life. This method is largely responsible for all of the major advances in science and our understanding of the natural world, but it isn’t how most people make decisions. Being a researcher makes you question everything - an approach that I feel society as a whole could benefit from hugely.
Scientists are very highly motivated, and although they work hard, they also like to play hard and socialise too. Science labs are often very cosmopolitan and usually have an interesting cultural mix. Life in a vibrant successful research group is very exciting.