If microbes avoid racial and gender bias, so should microbiologists

Posted on November 30, 2023   by Microbiology Society

UNESCO’s International Day for Tolerance takes place annually on 16 November and UN World AIDS Day on 1 December, to help assuage the social stigma of HIV/AIDS. In the period between these symbolic days, Ffion Lane, Member Engagement and Communities Manager at the Society, caught up with former Society President, Professor Robin Weiss, to find out why tolerance is important to him and his family. 

Could you tell us about yourself?  

Professor Robin Weiss in the lab
© Professor Robin Weiss

During my career in virology and cell biology I have mainly studied retroviruses, first in chickens and then in humans, standing with one foot in cancer research and the other in infectious diseases. I studied Zoology at University College London (UCL), UK; worked in India as a research assistant; in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) as a visiting fellow during the Prague Spring and following the Soviet army occupation in 1968 and, in USA, as a post-doc from 1970–1972. These were very diverse environments, yet scientific research has a common culture. From 1980–1998 I was Director of Research at the Institute of Cancer in London and then moved back to UCL, where I now have emeritus status. I closed my lab 10 years ago and take an interest in the impact of pandemics, past and present (Faculty Rev. 2022; 18:11:2). 

I summed up my research contributions in my Marjory Stephenson Lecture What’s the host and what’s the microbe? (Journal or General Virology. 2015; 96: 2501-2510). Marjory Stephenson was the second President of the Microbiology Society, following Alexander Fleming, and one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society – as late as 1945. We still have a long way to go to abolish gender bias in academia, though microbiology has a somewhat better record than many other disciplines; the Society’s 2020 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion survey showed that more than 50% of the then 6,000+ members were women. By the way, I identify myself as male, although on one occasion, my first name led to the allocation of a bed for me in a female dorm when registering for a conference in USA.

The International Day of Tolerance took place on 16 November. What does tolerance mean to you and why do you think it’s important to highlight it?

I feel sad that there’s a need for an international day of tolerance. I was raised in a tolerant society and took it for granted, but I realise it is not the norm for many people in the world.  

I identify as Jewish in the ethnic sense and to some extent in the cultural sense. I grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Highgate, London where my parents' friends mainly belonged to the same immigrant Jewish community. However, I am now the ‘Jewish patriarch' of a wonderfully multi-ethnic and multi-cultural family, which demonstrates how tolerance, including that of my parents and my future in-laws before we married, can bring diverse people together. I’m pleased to note, however, that the staff listed on the Microbiology Society website are even more diverse. 

Robin and his family on his wife’s 80th birthday
© Roland Ramanan

Robin and his family on his wife’s 80th birthday

Sitting next to me in the picture above is my wife, Margaret, whose family is from Kerala, India, but who grew up in Singapore. Our daughters are on each side of us.  

Helen, on the left, is a Professor of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK. Sitting on the left is her husband Roland, who has a white Scottish mother and had an African Caribbean father.  

Our other daughter, Rachel, on the right, is a counsellor who founded the Menopause Cafe charity. She lives in Perth, Scotland, and has a white English husband, Andy (not present in this photo). Their three teenage to adult children are on the right of the photo.  

The two younger children, Gabriel and Isabelle, sitting cross-legged, are half Indian and half Chinese, because their mother, our Singaporean niece Rosanna (top left), married a Singaporean Chinese man, Adrian. 

Although I’m ethnically Jewish, I am agnostic. However, Margaret is a Catholic and both of our daughters grew up Catholic; while one still is, the other has lapsed – which balances my lapsed or rather never practised Jewish faith. After 59 years of marriage, I know more about Catholicism than Judaism! 

You might imagine that I am the only Jewish person in the family photo, but that wouldn’t be correct according to Jewish law. There has been a small Jewish community in Kerala for centuries that still exists in Kochi. Rosanna's maternal great-grandmother was from that community but married a Keralan Catholic. Since Jewishness is matrilineal, it means that both Rosanna and Isabelle are regarded as Jewish in Orthodox Jewish eyes, although they practise Catholicism. 

Keralan society also has interesting gender attitudes because the ruling families, the Hindu Maharajas of Cochin and of Travancore followed a matrilinear inheritance: it was the son of the Maharaja's sister who inherited the title. Women have been dominant in Keralan society for generations as a result. This may account for Kerala having much higher literacy rates than other Indian states. It also established free schools and public libraries in the 19th century, before the British did, much to the disapproval of colonial officers. 

As someone who identifies as ethnically Jewish, have you ever been affected by antisemitism and if so, do you think this affected your career? 

I have personally experienced only one (though memorable) openly antisemitic episode professionally and I'm sure that happening to be Jewish had no impact whatsoever on the Society’s decision in 2006 to invite me to serve as President for a three-year term! This was a position which I regarded as an opportunity to give something back towards the end of a long career in virology.  

In my parents’ generation, antisemitism became the dominant factor of their lives in the German Third Reich, and some relatives perished. One of my aunts couldn’t submit her doctoral thesis under the racial laws introduced in Germany in 1933. She and an uncle were later supported in Cambridge by CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics), a charity which today supports academics in and from countries like Syria, Iran, Myanmar, and Ukraine. Please support CARA if you can. 

Jewish people have, if anything, been over-represented in academic areas in the UK during the 20th century. Last week, I was an examiner for a PhD thesis and realised that both the student and the other examiner also had Jewish sounding names. But I wouldn’t have noticed this at all had I not been asked to discuss Jewishness in this interview. What matters is that we are microbiologists. 

Do you think your family history has impacted the way you view tolerance, both in your personal and professional life?

Both my parents were Jewish and grew up in Germany as assimilated Jews. Of course, assimilation didn't help them when Hitler came to power. They emigrated in December 1933, arriving here as refugees 18 months later. My maternal grandparents arrived as 'illegal' asylum seekers at the end of 1938, with no possessions other than the clothes they wore but my grandmother brought with her practical knowledge that she imbued to me during food rationing: which wild fungi are edible that I still enjoy foraging today. It’s broadened my taste, let’s say delight, in multi-ethnic cuisine. 

I was born in London in 1940. When I was 3 months old, my father was interned as an 'enemy alien' in a remote prison camp on the Kintyre Peninsula of Scotland, set to labour dredging the Crinan Canal. He could have been in Rwanda as far as my mother was concerned, with four children to feed. He was released 8 months later and went straight into the Home Guard.  

My parents were officially stateless for 9 years after Germany formally removed their citizenship in 1938, until they gained UK citizenship in 1947. If you are stateless without a valid passport, you cannot travel. Our first family trips abroad were to Éire (Republic of Ireland) in 1948 and to Scandinavia in 1950. I still think travel broadens the mind. 

Despite the small minority of thugs and the all too frequent hate messages that circulate on social media, London seems to me to be high in diversity and tolerance, more so than when we married. When we looked for a place to buy in the 1960s, we came across an advertisement “Sorry, no blacks, no Irish”. How English that hypocritical word ‘sorry’ is! I called out of pure cheek and on learning that this apologetic stipulation was for the ‘sake of the neighbours’, I told them that we wouldn’t wish to live next door to neighbours like that. Such advertisements are illegal now and our neighbours include Jews, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Hindus and other mixed marriages. We are all concerned over the increase in Islamophobic and antisemitic incidents since the Hamas atrocity on 7 October and the Israeli response; overall, the demonstrations in London have been peaceful. We enjoy being ‘cosmopolitan’ even if it is used as a demeaning word by nationalists.  

Do you think more could be done to tackle intolerance, such as antisemitism, within academia and/or at the Society? 

Intolerance goes in cycles. I think of the golden age of Islamic science when Muslim and Jewish intellectuals pursued a common goal of increasing knowledge. The great Jewish scholar, Maimonides of Cordoba, was physician to the Muslim Caliph Saladdin, who himself was Kurdish, unloved by Arabs and Turks. It was the Christian crusaders who instigated pogroms against Jews on their way across Europe to fight Muslim ‘infidels’.   

I am not aware of any intolerance within the Microbiology Society and last April’s Annual Conference in Birmingham seemed to me to be as congenial as ever. 

To my mind, there have been worrying examples of intolerance within academia in recent years. There is a fine balance to be drawn between openness on controversial opinions and causing needless offence. One person’s ‘I was only joking’ remark may cause offence to others, though I don’t think that we should be so timid as to forbid inviting any offence at all. I’m particularly concerned about no-platforming academics and writers on controversial matters like LGBTQ+ affairs. It’s better to disagree vigorously but to maintain respect for one’s opponents. After reading Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men, Voltaire is reputed to have responded, “I abhor what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. 

UCL was founded in 1826 on the principle of tolerance. The ‘godless institution on Gower Street’ welcomed religious and ethnic minorities from the outset. Non-conformists, Catholics and Jews, who could not graduate from Oxbridge if they refused to sign up to the 39 Articles of the Church of England, were admitted on an equal basis. In 1878, UCL became the first British university to admit women on fully equal terms to men in all faculties - except medicine, though at the end of the 19th century, UCL turned a blind eye to Professor Francis Galton’s racist views on eugenics and only recently, after much debate and a formal inquiry, took his name off a lecture theatre.  

Last month, UCL launched a new initiative called ‘Disagreeing Well’. UCL states that “In this time of increasingly polarised debate, it has never been more important for us to be able to disagree well. The ability to discuss and debate with people who hold very different views is not without its challenges, but having the tools, techniques and platforms to do so is a vital part of how communities can co-exist together.” I wholeheartedly endorse this view.

What is the proudest moment from your career as a microbiologist? 

My proudest moment (though pride is hardly a virtue) was a symposium to celebrate my career held on my 80th birthday in the Gustave Tuck Theatre at UCL. Gustave Tuck (1857–1942) was President of the Jewish Historical Society and a UCL benefactor. 

Training people who go on to surpass your own achievements and keeping in contact with them is very rewarding. Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (look at the rim of a £2 coin). I’m more intrigued by the cultural pedigrees of academics rather than what their DNA reveals about ethnicity. Abraham Mendelssohn quipped: “Once I was the son of a famous father [Moses]; now I am the father of a famous son [Felix]”. It’s a pity he didn’t mention his talented daughter, Fanny. 

My biggest eureka moment came when I was still a research student and I stumbled upon endogenous retrovirus genomes embedded in host DNA. I was worried that my supposedly negative controls yielded positive results until I discerned that normal cells could complement an envelope-defective strain of Rous sarcoma virus. 

The discovery that I’m best known for is identifying CD4 as the binding receptor for HIV. The ‘pseudovirus’ technique that we used to achieve this is an antecedent of those used today to test for neutralising antibodies induced by vaccines against viruses such as Ebola and SARS-CoV-2. 

My most practical achievement regarding human health was contributing to the development in 1984 of a sensitive and specific assay for HIV antibodies, enabling diagnostic tests and screening blood donors. I had to revisit those days in my evidence to the Infected Blood Inquiry, due to report soon. 

One of the projects I have most enjoyed was demonstrating that some animals have ‘contagious’ tumours, whereby the tumour cell itself has escaped its original host to become a transmissible parasite. 

Finally, what advice would you give to your younger self today? 

To be a better listener. Yet my older self thinks we would be failing students if we don’t emulate Socrates (hopefully without having to drink hemlock) to encourage a healthy, sceptical mindset and to question the wisdom of authority, including our mentors. 

I used to have a t-shirt from the American Society of Microbiology stating: “Microbiologists do it with culture and sensitivity”. That’s good advice to follow. 

To find out more about our diverse community, you can read more blogs like Robin’s that focus on equality, diversity and inclusion.  

Thumbnail image credit: iStock/Yurii Karvatskyi