Laureation address: Professor Jean Beggs

Wednesday 22 June 2016


Laureation by Professor James Naismith, School of Chemistry, for Professor Beggs, recipient of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Jean Beggs.

Today’s students know a whole lot more about life and science than I knew at their age. It cannot be over-emphasised just how much ground-breaking scientific knowledge has been developed in the last twenty-five years. Scientific progress is exponential, it is restless and it brings profound change. Scientists are people, we can all find this change and its pace unsettling. Do we hold onto the world we know? Or do we grab the unfamiliar? For an academic scientist the choice is often to stick to what we know, find new-ish systems to do the same experiments rather than to re-tool our labs and do something different. Change is hard; it requires courage, it requires skill and most of all it requires honesty. For if we are honest, science demands change of scientists. If we manage to change just once, it is something to be proud of. Today we celebrate the achievements of Jean Beggs, a scientist who has shown the courage, skill and honesty to change, not once, but throughout her forty years as a scientist.

Jean Lancaster grew up in the west of Scotland; the first scientist in the family, she graduated in 1971 with a first-class degree in Biochemistry and then in 1974 with a PhD from the University of Glasgow. In between these events she married Ian Beggs on the day he graduated from medicine from that same university. Jean moved to Edinburgh as a postdoc with Professors Ken and Noreen Murray, both fellows of the Royal Society, and Bill Brammar. Her exceptional skills were soon spotted and she won a prestigious Beit Fellowship in 1976 that took her to Cambridge and onto every postdocs’ career dream: a lectureship at Imperial College London. Ian’s and Jean’s son Simon was born and Jean’s career took off. She devised methods for gene cloning in yeast and other higher eukaryotes that transformed what could be done. This work led her to study how the messages from genes are spliced, a defining feature of higher organisms. As an analogy: it is like a word search puzzle, where the words are buried in amongst nonsense. Gene splicing cuts out the hidden words and then joins them together to make understandable sentences.

In 1985, Jean resigned her tenured post at Imperial and moved to Edinburgh securing a fixed-term fellowship; then and now a step down the career ladder. Even in today’s world of changing employment patterns that would be a brave move. In 1985 it was staggeringly courageous. Over the next fifteen years Jean held and renewed an insecure fellowship. Paul, their second son, was born. Jean’s lab performed hugely influential work that dissected the splicing machinery in yeast with profound implications on how we understand higher organisms. The world paid attention and honours came thick and fast: membership of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1991; Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1995; and Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1998. Election to the Royal Society, the oldest and most prestigious scientific academy in the world, is the marker of an extraordinarily important scientific career. To many, this accolade for a UK scientist is second only to the Nobel Prize. Jean was both significantly younger than, and one of only two women amongst, those elected in that year. In 1998, Jean was one of less than sixty women ever to be elected out of over 7000 Fellows of the Royal Society. The following year, she finally became a regular professor at the University of Edinburgh. Significant honours have continued to come, too many to mention all of them in this speech, but I note some highlights as the Gabor Medal of the Royal Society in 2003 and a CBE in 2006.

With such a career before fifty, Jean could have kept doing the same sort of things and coasted along on a reputation already made. Yet Jean did not, she embraced emerging systems and tools to interrogate splicing and transcription in completely new ways. This takes huge courage, re-tooling a lab often results in a hiatus; for scientists a hiatus in output is dreaded. To remain as a cutting-edge scientist for over forty years makes her a role model and a hero to us lesser mortals.

Jean has been more than a role model; at Edinburgh and through the Royal Society she has advocated, supported and pioneered the mentoring of newly independent scientists, especially but not exclusively women. Jean has been a vocal advocate for equality of opportunity, finding concrete ways for her and others to improve retention and promotion of women. Strange though it sounds to a modern ear, until people like Jean, using her stature and credibility to lead the way, mentoring of newly independent scientists mostly consisted of being wished good luck by their colleagues. Jean was invited to join the first batch of mentors on the Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin scheme, named after the UK’s only female Nobel laureate. This scheme aims to support women and helps them establish independent research careers. I could read out the testimonials from those who Jean has mentored, but I will save her blushes by relating one comment: “Jean, a successful and well-established scientist, showed me by example what could be achieved.”

Being a world-leading scientist whilst leading the drive to mentor early career scientists more than justifies our recognition. But, there is more, Jean has given back to the wider science community through a record of exemplary service. She was the first woman Vice-President for Life Sciences of Scotland’s National Academy at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Alongside our fellow leading universities and a burgeoning biotechnology sector, there is an exceptionally vibrant cluster of life sciences in Scotland; leading and representing this community is an enormously time-consuming and important role. Jean was elected to this role by her peers, testament to the universal respect in which she is held. At the UK level Jean was elected to the Council of the Royal Society and served on many advisory boards. For many of you unfamiliar with this world, you may be thinking of a world of speaking fees or a jolly, all expenses paid, day out. On the contrary, these roles, like mentoring, are completely unpaid; your day job of teaching and research remains full time, you are judged every bit as thoroughly as before and no allowances are made. People like Jean do these roles because of a love for science and a deep commitment to giving service to the wider community. In return are occasional, fleeting moments of admiration and gratitude.

Jean, we would like to add to these moments with one of our own.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contributions to science, her pioneering role as a mentor and a servant of the scientific community, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Professor Jean Beggs.

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