Marjory Stephenson Prize 2020 – Professor Julian Parkhill

27 April 2021

Julian Parkhill_credit Wellcome Sanger Institute Genome Research Limited. 425x500.jpg

The Microbiology Society Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from our membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Marjory Stephenson Prize Lecture 2020: Twenty years of sequence-gazing, taking place this morning, Colman O’Cathail, Chair of the Society’s Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum Executive Committee, interviewed Professor Julian Parkhill FRS to find out more about his work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.

What motivated you to pursue your PhD and research in your early career?

I don’t think I ever considered doing anything else. At the school where I did my A-levels, it was assumed that if you were doing four sciences, you would go on to study medicine. I always wanted to do research, because I wanted to find out for myself how things worked. This didn’t please my teachers, who I think considered it to be a lesser career path. I have not found that to be the case.

Your career has almost certainly centred on the use of genomics to understand the biology of an array of microbes. How did you get into genomics?

I remember as a postdoc reading the first genome papers from The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), and realising the power of the approach to answer a whole raft of different questions. I was struck by how this would enable us to turn a piecemeal approach to biology into a systematic one, and allow us to answer questions about genetics definitively, rather than fishing for partial answers. At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it, but it certainly affected the paths I took later.

On reflection of your career to date, are there any key events that you think shaped your journey through science?

The thing that most people don’t tell you about scientific careers is how many of the pivotal points are down to sheer blind luck. The most important event in my career was answering an advert for a postdoc to work with Bart Barrell at The Sanger Centre (now The Wellcome Sanger Institute). It turned out that I had the ideal qualifications for the job; a combination of a PhD in bacterial genetics, and many years playing with computers and teaching myself bioinformatics. The latter was done just because I was interested, and much to the annoyance of various supervisors who considered I was wasting my time and theirs. There is no way I could have planned for it, but it just all came together at the right time.

The Marjory Stephenson Prize is awarded to “an individual who has made exceptional contributions to the discipline of microbiology”. Are there contributions of yours you consider meaningful to you?

In the early stages of genomics, and since, I’ve always set great store by getting your hands dirty with the raw data. There is always too much temptation in bioinformatics to run the standard pipelines and work with the derived data, but biology is a science of exceptions, and the really interesting insights come from scrabbling through the messy stuff. I can think of several cases where we have made significant biological insights from investigating the anomalies in the data that we could easily have tidied up and overlooked. Isaac Asimov said; “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'”

When you started using genomics, did you envision how ubiquitous it would become in the present day?

No. When we started doing genomics is was hugely expensive: half a million pounds and eighteen months of work from a large team to complete a single genome. We believed that we would deliver reference genomes for the major human pathogens, and that would be it. The development of high-throughput sequencing techniques changed that, but I don’t think we saw it coming. Incremental improvements, yes, but not the orders-of-magnitude changes that have enabled today’s genomics.

Would you agree that nothing has changed the way we examine infectious diseases like genomics has?

I’m not sure. Certainly, genomics has allowed significant insights into the biology of infectious agents, and genomics-enabled technologies will increasingly contribute to the clinical management of disease, but it is difficult to be absolute. Consider the revolutions enabled by the recognition that infectious disease was actually caused by invisible living agents, or the formulation and application of Koch’s Postulates, and many subsequent profound developments such as bacterial genetics and molecular genetics. Genomics is powerful, but it builds on all of this previous hard-won knowledge.

What will you be talking about in your presentation?

The power of exploring with an open mind, and the importance of not having a hypothesis.

Do you have any advice for early career microbiologists? Perhaps specifically the host of talented PhD students and aspiring postdocs out there?

Do what you enjoy; study what interests you. Don’t get too hung up on following the standard pathway: there is more than one way of building a career in science. Also, in the end, life is more important than work.

Finally, what does winning the Marjory Stephenson Prize mean to you?

I believe that in science that the most important recognition is the recognition of your peers. I consider the members of the Microbiology Society to be my peers, so it is an enormous pleasure to be given this recognition by them.

The Marjory Stephenson Prize Lecture 2020: Twenty years of sequence-gazing takes place this morning at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference Online 2021 at 09:00–09:45.

Inspired by our outstanding prize winners? Nominations for 2022 Prize Lectures and the 2023 Prize Medal are now open. Visit the Prize Lecture pages for more information.

Image: Wellcome Sanger Institute Genome Research Limited.