This guest blog is written by Robyn Hardisty, current Fitz PhD student and MCR Treasurer.
The Foundation lecture this year was given by Professor Shankar Balasubramanian, and entitled ‘Decoding human genomes on a population scale’. Shankar, an alumnus of the College (Natural Sciences, 1985), is the Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry, and also leads a research group at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, which is based at the Addenbrooke’s campus. Shankar had a seminal role in the development of next-generation DNA sequencing, and has since gone on to be a world leader in the field of nucleic acid chemical biology. He also happens to be my boss! I am currently a second year PhD student in his group, so obviously the lecture was not to be missed and it was my pleasure to give the vote of thanks at the end.

Professor Balasubramanian and the Master.

Professor Balasubramanian and the Master.

Nicky’s introduction was, as always, highly entertaining. After having dug out Shankar’s College file, she was able to reveal a number of interesting facts about his student antics. While naturally being described as a very competent student, Shankar was also revealed to be both an enthusiastic DJ and College football player, while also heavily involved in university access for ethnic minorities.

Shankar’s lecture focused on the history of DNA sequencing, his role in the development of next-generation sequencing technology and the impacts this has had on modern medicine. Shankar managed successfully to engage a largely non-scientific audience, while still managing to slip in a few chemical structures or ‘hexagons’. From stimulating discussions with colleague Professor Klenerman in the pub, he revealed how the method flourished, leading to the development of a spin-out company and the first DNA sequence, among others, of the human cancer genome. With continual improvement of this sequencing platform, routine human genome sequencing can now be done for around $1000. This is only a very small fraction of the original cost it took to sequence the first human genome only a decade ago. The availability of low-cost sequencing has enabled us to enhance our understanding of DNA, and has and will continue to progress medicine and advance personalised healthcare.

The post-lecture reception in the Upper Hall.

The post-lecture reception in the Upper Hall.

After the lecture, there were some absolutely excellent questions and the discussion carried on throughout the evening. The reception following the lecture took place in the lovely Upper Hall, followed by a spectacular dinner – where credit is due to the Fitzwilliam catering team. I was lucky enough to be sat at high table, and was opposite the legendary chemist Stuart Warren. Warren was not only a great heterocyclic chemist, but co-authored an undergraduate textbook ‘Organic Chemistry’ which is cherished by all natural science undergraduates across the country. Warren, funnily enough, taught Shankar as an undergraduate, and really enjoyed being lectured by one of his former students.

Fitz PhD student Robyn Hardisty thanks the speaker.

Fitz PhD student Robyn Hardisty thanks the speaker.

Overall, the night was a great success and I was glad to be a part of it!

In November 2013, I participated in a conference entitled Corporate Sustainability and Eco-innovations at which academics, mainly from developing countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), presented their views and research on the subject.

All the presentations were very interesting and intellectually stimulating but one concept struck me in particular. Professor Gregor Radonjič from the University of Maribor evaluated the consequences of using carbon emissions as an indicator of overall sustainability and general environmental impact. As a society, we very often associate the level of emissions of this greenhouse gas with overall environmental impact of goods, services, institutions, actions or projects. I am not suggesting that this is a measure widely accepted by academics, but the media and the wider population seem to be far more willing to use this shortcut as a proxy for assessing sustainability.

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“To rove about, musing, that is to say loitering, is, for a philosopher, a good way of spending time.” – Victor Hugo

Many Fitzwilliam graduate students will tell you of the importance of musing. Be it in the dining hall, hidden amongst the bookshelves of the library, or in the social spaces of the College, graduate students are often to be found engaging in academic dialogue with each other. It might be the biologist attempting to explain gene-splicing to the modern historian, or the geography student vigorously defending his research from the critique of a group of engineers. And, against the backdrop of looming deadlines and financial pressures, they seem to enjoy this simple act of musing. As Victor Hugo correctly identified in the quotation above, part of the art and skill of nurturing an inquisitive mind is the ability to loiter amongst like-minded individuals and simply enjoy the act of thinking.

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