Last week saw Fitzwilliam College celebrate Robert Burns’ birthday in a way that seems to be becoming a tradition – Formal Hall, complete with piper, and this time followed by a Ceilidh, organised by the Music Society. It was a happy coincidence that this was the first occasion on which our acting Chaplain, Helen Arnold, said grace in College – since she is a bona fide Scot. And then Harry Leitch (Medicine 2003; and on Twitter as HGLeitch) read the ‘Address to a Haggis’, which left many of us in the full dining hall somewhat bemused – to be frank, we needed help to understand the poem, let alone understanding ‘why’. But the purpose of the event was more an excuse to enjoy a convivial meal than a real celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns. It was a real pleasure for me to sit next to Harry, whose Fitzwilliam career has been astonishing – as I will set out in this blog.

Harry arrived in Fitz from Edinburgh in 2003. Now, nearly 11 years later, he has completed a PhD on mammalian germline development and pluripotent stem cell biology, and is in his final year of clinical medicine. His PhD focused on understanding the properties of primordial germ cells (PGCs) – the cells in the developing embryo that give rise to sperm and egg (depending on the sex of the embryo). His work involved developing novel methods to culture these cells and to direct their behaviour in vitro – including converting them to “pluripotent stem cell lines”. He explained over dinner (and has helped me here to write down) how this method for culturing PGCs may have applications in reproductive medicine: it has long been a goal to culture germ cells in an attempt to understand their properties and possibly to treat infertility. Pluripotent stem cells are so called because they can morph into all types of cells found in the adult body, including brain, heart, skin – everything! So understanding how pluripotent cells can be made and utilised will be crucial in future regenerative medicine strategies. During a short post-doc, he continued his work on pluripotent stem cells by studying their “epigenetic” signature. This means looking at how their DNA is packaged and organised – a key to understanding the properties of pluripotent cells and, eventually, to understanding how to manipulate them successfully.

Although this cutting edge science is fascinating (and Harry a great teacher – which may explain why he’s now a Teaching Bye Fellow, supervising our first year medics and vets) it was perhaps easier for me to engage with the ethical issues which the topic provokes. We enjoyed a lively debate with the Chaplain on the ethics of IVF, of research on human embryos (when does life begin and end?), of abortion, and of regenerative medicine. Anyone who wants to suggest that the childless should simply be encouraged to adopt the many unwanted and unloved children in this world, Harry suggested, should try telling that to a group of a hundred would-be mothers who have faced recurrent miscarriages or failed attempts to conceive.

Harry is also a Scottish International squash player, who has competed during his time at Fitz at European and World Championships, and has been selected to compete at his third Commonwealth Games in Glasgow later this year. He has won nine Blues, and is expecting to win a tenth come February.  We sometimes hear complaints that Fitzwilliam does not welcome sportsmen and women as once it did. Nonsense! We welcome them with open arms and relish their successes. We have Captains of several University teams at the moment – including both polo and water polo. The challenging question for us is why there aren’t more applicants who excel both in their studies and at sport.

Look out for the guest post about Robert Burns by Dr Kasia Boddy coming later this week.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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