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