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Nicholas Keep


Nicholas Keep is Emeritus Professor of Biomolecular Crystallography in the Department of Biological Sciences and former Executive Dean of Birkbeck's School of Science. He attended a large state school in Devon, did his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and stayed on to do a PhD in the Biochemistry Department and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. After researching at University College London and the University of Leicester, he returned to the Medical Research Council Laboratory, from which he joined Birkbeck in 1998 as a Lecturer before becoming Professor in 2009.

In 2009 Nicholas became one of the five inaugural Executive Deans and was the last one to stand down. He was an organiser of protein crystallographers across the Institute of Structural Molecular Biology, renewing equipment based at Birkbeck and heading bids for time at the Diamond UK synchrotron. His academic publications and research into protein structure have been unusually broad, including proteins involved in tuberculosis, insect sense of smell, muscular dystrophy, and synthesis of alkaloids. Having retired in 2021, Nicholas is commended for his many contributions to the College, including advocacy for the work of Birkbeck's School of Science.


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Nicholas Keep to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London. Professor Nicholas Keep is a leading biomolecular scientist and crystallographer. For 24 years, he has been a central presence at Birkbeck, dedicating himself to ensuring the scientific excellence of his Department and School but also contributing to the intellectual, professional, and managerial life of the college more broadly.

As we all know, from the foundation of the College, the sciences at Birkbeck have a long and formidable record. Notable scientists whose talents were nurtured at Birkbeck include J. D. Bernal, Rosalind Franklin, P. M. S. Blackett, J. W Jeffrey, David Bohm, Basil Hiley, Alan MacKay, and Tom Blundell. It was to such an historically distinguished department that Keep joined in 1998, as a junior lecturer in the School of Crystallography.

He had been born in Bedford to an historian father and chemist mother, but grew up in Devon. After attending a medium-sized prep school, he went to Exmouth Community College, one of the largest in the country. From there, it was a scholarship to go to the University of Cambridge, Clare College, to read the Natural Sciences. Crystallography was not his first love. When young, he fancied himself to be another Jacques Cousteau, the undersea explorer, but couldn't draw well enough to be a field biologist. As a teacher once told him, he was "artistically autistic". His love of protein crystallography though was set aflame when he attended some intimate (only 4-5 people invited) lectures at Cambridge by Nobel Prize winner Max Perutz. Where he completed his BA and PhD (awarded 1993), He worked for a few years at UCL (collaborating with Leicester) and Cambridge, but Birkbeck was to be his home for most of his career. Within only 11 years of his appointment, he had been promoted to the top ranks as the Professor of Biomolecular Science. The meteoric rise is testament to his standing within one of the most challenging scientific disciplines.

Keep proved to be versatile colleague. As one of Keep's colleagues bragged, Keep "could do everything himself if necessary, one minute at his desk building a new protein structure on his screen, then lab coat on and into the cold room, next collecting crystal diffraction images in the X-ray room.... Bring a scientific problem to him and quick as a flash he offered good solutions". His main interests lie in protein crystallography, electron microscopy, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance studies. Specific enquiries include research into the structures of proteins of Mycobacteria (Tuberculosis), with an emphasis on dormancy and resuscitation. Given that two billion people worldwide carry the disease (making it the world's most common bacterial infection) and two million die of it each year, dormancy of TB organisms is a major health problem. TB typically lies dormant until it is activated –by other illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, old age, or poverty –when it becomes highly infectious and lethal. According to one paper, a person with active TB can infect up to 15 other people every year. This active period can be treated through a course of antibiotics, but residue TB bacteria might remain in the system and, if a person does not complete the lengthy course of antibiotics, could be resuscitated. Along with John Ward at UCL, Brian Henderson at the Eastman Dental Institute, and Christian Roumestand at INSERM or the Institute of Cancer Research in Montpellier, Keep discovered the structure of a protein – which they named Rpf for "resuscitation promoting factor" – that "wakes up" dormant TB bacteria.

Uncovering the molecular structure of TB paves the way to new drug treatments that can deal more effectively with dormancy and multidrug resistant TB strains. TB has been only one of many scientific breakthroughs. Keep has also worked in worked on insect odour perception. His research on the proteins involved in muscular dystrophy, particularly dysferlin and its role in membrane repair in Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy type 2, have been crucial. In support of the scientific community globally, he has deposited more than 40 structures in the Protein Data Bank, a database for three-dimensional structural data of large biological molecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids, which is made available at no charge and without limitations on usage to all curious people. Its aim is to help enable breakthroughs in science and education by providing access and tools for exploration, visualization, and analysis and is a leading global resource for experimental data central to scientific discovery. He has published around 60 papers and has an impressive h-index of 31.

Keep was responsible for gaining access to the Diamond Synchrotron, which was essential for all structural biology research. He secured funding to enable purchase of new X-ray crystallisation and data collection equipment at Birkbeck in 2007, which also led to Cancer Research Technology (CRT) basing their Structural Biology staff at Birkbeck for some years under supervision of Keep. In this way, he has contributed to drug discovery and optimisation processes that are central to crystallography.

Juggling the intellectual challenges of structural and molecular biology with the skills needed to manage a thriving Department and School is not something most academics succeed in. Keep has never shied away from the difficult administrative tasks that come with the title of Professor but which too many senior academic seek to avoid either by persuading more junior colleagues to shoulder a vastly increased world-load or by performing the job so incompetently that their colleagues plan a panicky release. This was never the case with Keep. In 2007, Keep became Dean of the School of Science and then two years later, Executive Dean of the School, a position he held until his retirement. Indeed, one colleague told me that he seemed to relish "resolving complex administrative and financial problems". One of his great achievements includes working to ensure that the Department earned an Athena SWAN Silver award, recognising and celebrating their good employment practices for women in Science.

Keep is known for his energetic and supportive teaching style, training a generation of undergraduates as well as postgraduates while serving as Programme Director for the distance learning MSc Structural and Molecular Biology. As First Supervisor, he has worked with more than a dozen PhD students and is widely sought after as a mentor for postdocs. Collaboration and sharing knowledge are central to the work of science. I was intrigued to hear that Keep is a member of the Acid Fast Club – imagining this to be some psychedelic club for scientists and chemists, along the lines of "Breaking Bad"! Alas, nothing so exciting. The Acid Fast Club is the UK's most prestigious research forum focusing on the mycobacteria, especially those acid-fast bacteria (AFB) responsible for diseases such as TB and leprosy. Its main proponent was Charles Lack, bacteriologist at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital in 1954, and was limited to 50 members. Even today, membership is capped at 80.

Keep is an active member of the Institute for Structural Molecular Biology. He has collaborated widely across Bloomsbury Colleges. He is a "good citizen", acting as Treasurer of the Biological Structures group of the British Crystallographic Association, and on the CCP4 (Protein Crystallography software consortium) Executive and Working Groups 1 and 2. He has also been deeply involved in union work, particularly as a University College Union negotiator on the Framework Negotiation Group. I am told that he was "a very effective negotiator and produced numerous spreadsheets illustrating the various possible scenarios". He was important in improving the academic promotion process.

So, what about the man? His "industry and effectiveness" are widely commented upon. He is universally agreed to be "always easy to work with and level-headed.... Unfailingly kind". He and his wife Ann, a chemist working on compounds of precious metals, live in Hertfordshire. He loves music and is a talented musician, who played the trumpet as a young man (and still occasionally brings it out) and the organ, as well as singing in the Royston Choral Society. He is a birdwatcher. Colleagues tell me that has a reputation for "walking very fast in leather soled shoes to and from Kings Cross [station]. He is a "man in a hurry", complaining about having to put his train ticket through a machine (in Cambridge) which would add ten seconds or so to his journey". But he also "had not an ounce of flounce, but kilos of kindness". Non-hierarchical in his interactions with colleagues and "always respectful". A great sense of humour. One colleague even said that "it felt like a parent was leaving the family home when he retired".

But it is to his leadership as a scientist and scholar that we owe him the greatest debt. For quarter of a century, Nick Keep has dedicated his intellectual and personal energies to ensuring that the College, its staff, and students flourish. The scientific excellence of his Department and School are a testimony to his success in this enterprise. We are thrilled to welcome him to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck.