Alumni Newsletter - Letter from HoD

George Ratcliffe wrote this letter for the Trinity Term 2021 Alumni Newsletter.

Recognising the near universal disruptive effects of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, I do not intend to dwell at length on the rather parochial question of how we’ve coped in the Department over the last year. Suffice it to say that through the extraordinary commitment of very many people in both Plant Sciences and Zoology, lectures were delivered, practical classes ran, examinations were taken, and the penultimate cohort graduated with the BA in Biological Sciences. Of course, like so much else, much of this activity has been online and the two-dimensional world of the screen has proved to be no substitute for the richness of the professional and social interactions it replaced.

In the course of this difficult year, there have been three events that will have long term significance for Oxford Biology. First, the Colleges matriculated the second cohort into the four year Biology degree, while at the same time the last cohort of undergraduates reading the three year Biological Sciences degree entered their final year. In fact, many of these third year biologists will stay on to do a fourth year research project and will therefore graduate with the new MBiol. Secondly, the University has approved the merger of the Plant Sciences and Zoology departments, paving the way for the move of the newly formed Department of Biology into the new Life and Mind Building (LaMB). Finally, the design of the LaMB has been approved by the planning authorities, and the capital for its construction has been released in a deal between the University and Legal & General. We can therefore look forward with confidence to moving into new premises in 2024. While changes of this magnitude are inevitably accompanied by some anxiety, I believe that Oxford biology, and Oxford plant biology in particular, are now well placed to capitalise on their considerable standing as research institutions.

Time moves on, and a notable retirement from the Department takes place at the end of June. Peter Darrah, the longstanding tutor at Worcester and latterly the Director of Undergraduate Teaching for the Biological Sciences degree has decided to call it a day. Peter’s inestimable qualities have been to the fore in recent years both in coping with the abrupt closure of the Tinbergen Building back in 2017 and in leading the adjustment to online teaching with the onset of the pandemic. Peter has also been the mastermind behind the fearsome spreadsheet that keeps track of all the marks in the Final Honour School examinations, thus ensuring that the younger readers of this newsletter graduated with the correct result.

I too am retiring at the end of September, bringing to an end four momentous years as Head of Department, and it is my great pleasure to say that my successor will be Mark Fricker, another well-known College tutor and contributor to the course. Mark is ideally placed to take Plant Sciences into the merger and the LaMB. Mark’s long association with the Department dates back to his undergraduate degree in Botany at Pembroke College, and more recently as Head of Facilities in Plant Sciences Mark has played a leading role in the design of the new building. I am confident that Mark will be a very effective advocate for Oxford plant biology in the years ahead.