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Professor David Moss

(Elected 2006)


‘I feel honoured to become a Birkbeck Fellow. It gives me great pleasure because it affords a lifelong connection with the College,’ says David Moss, retired Professor of Biomolecular Structure at Birkbeck and now a part-time Senior Research Fellow.

After gaining his PhD at King’s College on chemical crystallography in 1967, Professor Moss got at job as a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds, and then secured a lectureship in electron microscopy at Birkbeck's Crystallography department.

He says: ‘Arriving at Birkbeck in 1968 was one of the happiest days of my life.’

Professor Moss has research interests ranging from molecular biology and protein crystallography – the study of crystallised molecules – to bioinformatics, which is the analysis of large amounts of biological data using computer networks and databases.

‘I am fascinated by symmetry and statistics, both of which are central in protein crystallography, and some of my contributions to these areas have given me great pleasure,’ he says.

Professor Moss leads Birkbeck’s efforts in the ImmunoGrid collaborative project to build and deploy a virtual human immune system using a computer simulation. The system will mimic immune responses to help design treatments for cancer and chronic infections.

‘This will assist in understanding autoimmune diseases, for example rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, allergies and leukaemia relapse. In the latter case, we have been working to develop immunotherapies where donor T cells can be used to kill residual leukaemia cells.’

He is equally proud of his teaching successes, not least introducing internet-based education in 1995. ‘I enjoyed taking part in running these courses, even when it meant giving tutorials in the middle of the night to catch students on both sides of the Pacific Rim. We were one of the first universities to use the internet for this.’

His biggest challenge as Head of the School of Crystallography (1987–1996 and 2001–2006) has often been the sheer volume of work, he says. ‘In academic life scientific progress does not arise out of good management. Bad management, however, can easily stifle initiative. I hope I have provided a supportive infrastructure and a scientific environment where people can realise their talents. I've had some great colleagues who have given the School the world-class research reputation it deserves.’ Many colleagues are grateful that David sacrificed time that could have been spent on academic work to provide this good management.

As he steps down, Professor Moss has plenty to keep him busy. ‘In the summer I monitor the butterfly populations on Chobham Common, a National Nature Reserve, for the Butterfly Conservation. I also regularly visit inmates in a local prison. Many come from broken homes and opted out of school.’ However, he will not be hanging up his Birkbeck lab coat any time soon, having secured a 'retirement job' as a part-time Senior Research Fellow. He is keen to express his respect for Birkbeck students. ‘I have tremendous admiration for anybody who can study for a degree with a full-time job. Teaching such students can be so rewarding because they often bring so much to their studies from their day jobs.’


President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

David Moss completed his BSc at King’s College London in 1965 and his PhD a brisk two years later. After a brief dalliance with the University of Leeds, where he was a lecturer in Chemistry, David Moss came to join the Department of Crystallography at Birkbeck in 1968. Over the nearly forty years that he has been a member of staff here, he has made an unparalleled contribution both to his department and to the life of the College.

David brought to the teaching and research in crystallography a strong mathematical understanding, especially in the areas of symmetry and the spatial organisation of matter. He has also had a long-standing interest in structural biology, and has done important work to establish with precision the structure of proteins. Recent successes have included breakthroughs in the understanding of the structure of some major bacterial toxins, notably the Clostridium perfringens bacteria that cause ‘gas-gangrene’, named for the pockets of gas that form in tissue infected by the bacteria. These bacteria, which thrive where circulation is poor, can eat flesh to the bone and cause death within a matter of hours; they are a major cause of death among battlefield casualties and victims of disasters such as the Asian tsunami. and may be implicated in the deaths of babies who have died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Working with his Birkbeck colleague Ajit Basak, David Moss has provided the first detailed description of the alpha toxin in the bacterium and explained how it disrupts the signalling function of cells. The alarming prospect of the use of such toxins in bioterrorism gives this work a strong contemporary importance.

David Moss’s computing expertise has been crucial in research developments in the area of bioinformatics, or the use of computer databases and algorithms to enhance biological research, especially in the area of genetics. David Moss has also for some time been leading the School of Crystallography’s involvement in the ImmunoGrid project, which began in February 2006. The aim of this project is to create a virtual immune system, through an interlocked series of simulations of the immune system’s different constituents - cells, organs and , most particularly, the molecules involved in signalling. This data is not held in one location, but distributed across a large number of different sites. Birkbeck has responsibility for gathering the data and evaluating the performance of the simulation. The system allows one to mimic human immune reactions in silico, and to predict bacterial proteins that might be a source of helper T-cells to initiate immune responses, for example in leukaemia sufferers. Other areas of application for this work include the understanding of rejection and compatibility, allergy and the design of vaccines.

David Moss has also been a leader and innovator in teaching, especially in the use of information technology. In 1995, in collaboration with Peter Murray-Rust of Glaxo-Wellcome, he led the development of a 15-week course on Principles of Protein Structure using the internet. David saw that the internet made it possible to make widely available visualisations and interactive simulations that were superior to anything that could be found in a student textbook. He persuaded around 30 experts in protein structure from around the world to contribute graphical and textual material to the course, which was then made available to students all around the world. We have become familiar by now with the concept of chatrooms and real-time interchange across the web, though at that time the idea of adapting the technologies associated with online gaming to academic purposes was new: it was whispered thrillingly in College that the Crystallography department was building a series of ‘multi-user dungeons’ in the Malet Street basement. Birkbeck’s Crystallography department was already renowned for its expertise in determining the three-dimensional structure of protein molecules; David Moss’s venture also put the college at the forefront of developments in educational technology, broaching new intuitions of what it might mean to teach and learn. By 1998, the course had over 70 students from 18 countries across four continents. David Moss and his colleagues learned that the internet made the College’s motto of ‘In Nocte Consilium’ a twenty-four hour commitment. In the credo of the career cocktail-drinker, it’s always six o’clock somewhere in the world; and happy hour similarly runs round the clock on the screens of the School of Crystallography. The course, which now forms the first year of the internet-based MSc in Structural Biology, won an award from the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA) in 1997. David was able to spread his inspiration and expertise more broadly through the college in his role as Pro-Vice-Master for Communications and Information Technology, a role he filled from 2002 until his retirement.

David has also served for two long periods as Chair of the Crystallography department, during a period in which the administrative demands on senior staff have mushroomed extravagantly. Crystallography in Birkbeck is as complex as the molecular structures it studies, with a large number of students, technical and research staff, projects and collaborations to be overseen and coordinated. David has been an exemplary steward and shepherd to the School, always in a collaborative and never a confrontational manner. Those of us who have encountered him on college committees have also had a chance to appreciate the old-fashioned grace and gentility of his demeanour. He is a veteran of these occasions, and has always taken pleasure in the achievements of the graduates he has seen pass before him on this and similar platforms. It is a personal pleasure to be able to welcome him now as a Fellow of the college he has served so long and selflessly, and to which he has made such an outstanding contribution.