Biology News 2018: HoD message from Professor Ben Sheldon

The past year has been an exciting one for the Department of Zoology: a year with challenges to overcome, successes to celebrate, and most of all, new directions and initiatives to plan and develop. When I wrote this piece last year, we were dealing with the immediate aftermath of the sudden closure of the Tinbergen Building, which had been home to the Department for more than 45 years, and within which many of you will have had the majority of the lectures and practicals on the undergraduate course. An enormous amount of work has gone into managing the response to this unprecedented event, both within the department, but also across the wider University. 

As you can read elsewhere in this Newsletter, we have been able to open new modular teaching laboratories behind the Tinbergen building. While temporary, these are of an impressively high quality, and have been used by undergraduates since November. In addition, extensive building and refurbishment has taken place out at Wytham Field Station, and a 3000 m2modular research building is nearing completion, close to the other science buildings, in the heart of the city. There has been a tremendous spirit throughout this difficult time, and we have benefitted from many offers of help from colleagues across the University. Indeed, in her annual oration, the Vice-Chancellor highlighted the response to the Tinbergen closure (or ‘Texit’ as it has been named by an undergraduate wit) as a prime example of the ‘One Oxford’ theme that illustrates the resilience of this University.

Throughout the challenges of the past 12 months, research and teaching has gone on as normal, and students and members of the department continue to expand the boundaries of biological knowledge. Whether using machine-learning and citizen science to find new ways to study penguins, uncovering the causes of the sudden death of 200 000 saiga antelope in Kazakhstan in 2015, showing how hunting peregrine falcons and cruise missiles have independently derived the same guidance mechanisms, or revealing the details of the spread of Zika and yellow fever viruses, much of the work in the department has close relevance to pressing challenges facing humans and other life on this planet. We held a special alumni event at the Reform Club in London in September which enabled us to meet more than 80 alumni and talk about our scientific and academic mission. This was a new departure for us, but the demand was large, the evening a huge success, and we are keen to run similar activities away from Oxford in the future.

Members of the department have achieved notable recognition in many areas this year with, for example, Ashleigh Griffin awarded the Zoological Society of London Scientific Medal, Kayla King awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Biology, and Charles Godfray knighted for services to science and policy. Sir Charles has moved on to become the Director of the Oxford Martin School, the latest example of many where senior members of the department have contributed to leadership in science and policy development.  

As we have dealt with the Tinbergen Building closure, and ensured that we can pursue normal activities , so we have begun the work of determining the next steps for the department, and for Biological Sciences. An extensive process has been underway to find the best way to plan the future of the subject, and while details are not finalised, there are radical and exciting plans afoot, both for new buildings to provide a centre for Biology in Oxford for the 21stcentury, and for a new way to teach the subject in these changing times. We are always delighted to welcome alumni back to Oxford, or to meet elsewhere, and look forward to sharing some of these new initiatives as they develop over the coming months and years.