In a little over a week, I will be heading back to the dreaming squires of Oxford. I usually relish a chance to go back and reminisce about slightly idyllic days (it’s amazing how you forget about all the hard work, hours spent at a desk and hand-crippling finals!) but, unfortunately, this trip will be a little different.
On the 7th January this year one of my college tutors, Professor Alison Brading, passed away and Saturday 4th June will see people from all over the world will gather at Lady Margaret Hall to celebrate her life.
This upcoming trip made me to look back to the first time I met Professor Brading. It was when, as an incredibly nervous 17 year old, I had travelled to Oxford for my interview to study Physiology. Fearing I would loose my bottle, I had asked my parents to drop me at the end of Norham Gardens, the road which Lady Margaret Hall was on. I had shakily walked the length of it, not knowing that that route would become wonderfully familiar in the years to come. After two agonising days of waiting, I got called to my interview with Professor Brading. Her appearance was deceptive. I would find out later that it was contracting Polio during her late teens that had confined her to a wheelchair. This made her appear, if I’m honest, slightly older and frailer than she actually was. However, her mind was unbelievably sharp. And, although I can only remember snippets of what I actually said at the interview, I can remember with great clarity that I had sat in front of a remarkable woman.
On the day on my A level results the post arrived unusually early. There was something for me; a letter from Professor Brading congratulating me on my results, and telling me how much she was looking forward to my arrival in Oxford that October. Although sometimes I would groan about the essays she set, moan about her challenging tutorials in the stifling pharmacology building, Professor Brading really cared about her students. I always knew that, and that letter is physical proof of that.
Despite having an inkling that Professor Brading was a great scientist, I never fully appreciated the impact that she had on the understanding of the physiology of smooth muscle until I read a memorial written by my moral tutor, Professor Anant Parekh, in the Journal of Physiology:
“Whereas most research was devoted to understanding the physiology of cardiac and skeletal muscle, Alison decided to focus her efforts on the less tractable and largely ignored fields of smooth muscle.
Alison, and another gifted young scientist, Tadao Tomita, discovered fundamental mechanisms underlying smooth muscle excitability. In contrast to other muscle, they showed that calcium ions carry the spikes of electrical activity that often drive muscle contraction. Alison elegantly established the importance of membrane pumps in modulating excitability, particularly sodium-calcium exchange. This was important work: it showed that smooth muscle function was sculpted by a subtle interplay between ion channels and the largely overlooked ionic pumps.”
This understanding of smooth muscle is largely taken for granted these days, and is taught in first year undergraduate physiology, but at the time this was ground-breaking work. Since reading this I have dug out some of the original articles on smooth muscle which Professor Brading wrote, including one published in Nature in 1968.
People rarely come along that profoundly shape your life, or leave such vivid memories. Take the time to remember these people, and recognise them. I look forward to sharing my stories and hearing more about Professor Brading incredible research and life on the 4thJune.