Professor Fiona Watt shared her experiences and findings from a successful career researching cell differentiation at NHLI's Athena SWAN lecture.
The National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) was delighted to host Professor Fiona Watt for its 2016 Athena SWAN lecture on cell differentiation on the 20 January. Fiona has forged a highly commended career path working for many well respected scientific institutions. Prof Watt is currently the head of the Centre of Regenerative Medicine at Kings College London (KCL).
Prof Watt began by explaining how growing up in Edinburgh her first move towards a top academic institution was inspired by, of all things, a boat race. Having watched Oxford lock paddles with Cambridge on the Thames, and triumph, Fiona decided that Oxford was the university for her. After a perhaps whimsical first step into science Prof Watt went on to build a successful academic career and work with some great fellow scientists. Sir Henry Harris, Fiona’s supervisor at Oxford, introduced her to the subject by stating ‘there are only two intellectual challenges in science: differentiation and cancer. Which do you want to work on?’. Although Fiona opted for cell differentiation her first research was on cancer until she moved to work with Howard Green at Harvard Medical School.
"One of the most important things in a career is your colleagues – a sense of community"
– Prof Fiona Watt
Fiona spoke on the importance of forming good working relationships with those around you, and how this can benefit you in the future – something she did herself with her time working with Green. Prof Watt’s first research at Harvard was on using sheets of cultured epidermis to treat bad burns. This culminated in a 1982 publication in Nature with Howard Green on the effect adding calcium has on the movement of differentiated cells.
Prof Watt continued to investigate how changing the cell environment can effect cell differentiation at The Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology before moving to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). It was here that Fiona focused on the epidermis and found that she could select for stem cells by using flow cytometry. In relation to a paper published on transgenic mouse models in skin cancer Prof Watt commented how it can be interesting to retrospectively discover which papers end up being controversial, and leading to scientific discussion on the topic.
Prof Watt remarked at this point that it was “great to talk to people who speak a different language, you can learn a lot” implying that a lot can be gained from working with colleagues with other specialities and backgrounds. Fiona continued her work on cell differentiation at the CRUK Cambridge Research Institute and Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, before her move to KCL. Her work has included discovering the importance of phosphatase in the onset of cell differentiation.
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