Symposium celebrates achievements of Birkbeck crystallographer

Professor Bonnie Wallace’s research and teaching successes celebrated at day-long symposium

Delegates of the celebratory symposium for Professor Bonnie Ann Wallace

The research and teaching achievements of Birkbeck crystallographer, Professor Bonnie Ann Wallace, in her career thus far were marked at a celebratory symposium.

The ‘Shining Light on Membrane Proteins’ symposium was attended by around 100 delegates from across the world – including a number of her former postdocs or students. Held at Birkbeck’s Malet Street building on Wednesday 10 August, the symposium featured presentations encompassing two major themes of research explored by Professor Wallace and her laboratory – circular dichroism spectroscopy, and membrane protein structure and function. Presentations were delivered across the day by speakers from five continents, all of whom had worked or collaborated with Professor Wallace since the 1970's.

Professor Wallace has been a leading figure in the study of membrane proteins and polypeptides structures for more than four decades years. Joining Birkbeck in 1990 after holding various professorial positions in the United States, she has played a vital role in elucidating he structure and function of voltage-gated sodium channels – a central element of physiology. Her lab, which is based within the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, has made a number of important discoveries, such as determining the first crystal structure of a sodium channel in its open conformation.

This month’s symposium was organised by Dr Lee Whitmore, a senior postdoctoral researcher in Professor Wallace’s lab, and Dr Robert Janes, her long-term colleague and collaborator from Queen Mary University of London, along with the help of students and staff from Birkbeck.

By no means marking her retirement, the symposium offered a moment to celebrate Professor Wallace’s 65th birthday and to look back on what she and her peers have accomplished in their fields of research, plus what they aim to achieve going forward.

Reflecting on the symposium, Professor Wallace said: “For me it was gratifying to hear all of the world-class talks and be able to see the influence I have had on the development and careers of my students and postdocs, and to look forward to continuing the exciting work they and we are currently doing,  as well as in the collaborations we are participating in on methods development and studies of the medically-important voltage-gated sodium channels.”

Looking at her achievements and those of her students and colleagues, she added that they have served to highlight the importance of doing “basic science” while also maintaining focus on the applications that such studies can have for the betterment of human health and agriculture. 

She said: “A signature of our work has been collaborations with academic and industrial scientists worldwide, including training new students through workshops and developing new spectroscopic methods that have been widely adopted by other labs. But a singularly important outcome of my work has been the training of students and postdocs who think critically and use the knowledge they have gained from their scientific studies in their lifetime endeavours – not only in academic science, but in a wide-range of pursuits.”

In terms of advice she has for others looking to pursue a similar career path, Professor Wallace said the most important things were determination, innovation, collaboration, and above all the excitement and love of discovering new things.

She added: “The other important issue is working with good students, postdocs, and colleagues.  I have had the good fortune to have all of these during my time at Birkbeck College.  Science is hard work for limited external reward, so it is something you must do only if you love it, and hopefully the fruits of your work can make a difference both to the people you work with, as well as having impact in improving the human condition in the wider world.”

Looking ahead, Professor Wallace and her team continue to develop new methods to allow them to answer important biological questions, and gain new insight into the molecular basis of disease, aiming to provide an underpinning basis for the development of new and safe drugs for the treatment of neurological and cardiovascular diseases.

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