Professor Russell G Foster, CBE, FSB, FMedSci, FRS
Doctor of Science
Wednesday 11 February at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Andrew Dick
‘You snooze you lose’
This is not a university slogan to promote and encourage the best of students or staff, but the headline from a well-respected broadsheet featuring an interview with Professor Russell Foster, our honorary graduand today.
But does Russell believe that you should not snooze? The answer is a resounding NO. Professor Foster has made a fundamental scientific discovery. We used to believe that the cells in the eye known as photoreceptors were the only cells to detect light and begin the process of vision. Russell has discovered that other light-detecting cells exist in the retina and these cells are not part of the visual cascade but are instrumental in regulating our general wellbeing and health. As a result, a highlight from decades of Russell’s research in neuroscience is the promulgation of the frequently-neglected importance of getting enough sleep and at the right time; a joyous and celebrated scientific discovery for many – we have a 24 hour clock – a circadian rhythm, controlling what time to sleep and when to be awake. However, his work is by no means as light-hearted as it first may sound. The title of the interview – ‘you snooze, you lose’ – in itself highlights the societal dilemma we all face, not least balancing the modern competitive personal and corporate ethos with personal and societal wellbeing. The work-life balance we all seek to perfect, bringing equipoise to the demands society often puts upon us.
In Professor Foster’s words: "We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle”.
But as Russell says:
"What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems."
His discovery of light detecting but non-rod, non-cone photoreceptors in the retina of the eye, ignited world interest in the relatively new scientific field of chronobiology. As with most great advances, the scientific community was skeptical, indeed initially disbelieving and dismissive of his finding of a non-visual pathway in the retina, but Russell persevered and with dogged determination continued to provide the scientific evidence to convince all.
His work continues to deliver major impact, and in many ways, such as: scientifically, where it drives many scientists to ask how do cells and our brain respond to light-dark cycles and maintain function. Medically – the work highlights the risks of poor or altered sleep patterns on course and outcome of major diseases such as depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer and obesity. HIs work impacts our working life – where altered sleep impairs our ability to perform optimally mentally and physically and has highlighted the dangers of shift work and informed the airline industry. Finally, his work questions education– asking ‘when is the right time to teach?’ to ‘when should the school day start’?
The broadsheet headline – ‘you snooze, you lose’ - was polemical, but not as first envisaged. Professor Foster has engaged the scientific community and society through the impact of his fundamental discovery.
I am unsure if Bristol is famous for its sleeping habits, but it is a city that continues to be creative, cultural and innovative – perhaps the draw that brought Russell to our city. The young and yet to become Professor Foster, was indeed always enquiring and erudite. As a young student he did, fortunately, avoid the advice of his masters at school, who commented and advised to avoid science as a career because of the brutal life style, unreliable source of income and ultimately the lack of ability such a career brings to truly help others. Not swayed, he continued always to ask ‘why and how’, wishing to liberate truth through evidence and to this end, created a laboratory from his parents’ garden shed.
With this never-ending enthusiasm and quest for knowledge, Russell entered Bristol but with his own inimitable style. He came to interview with two large A4 files full of his observations on zoological matters/ experiments, after which the offer with low ‘A’ level grade requirement was made, and his future was set. Russell received his undergraduate education and then PhD under the supervision of Professor Sir Brian Follett and Bristol brought a most fruitful and happy time of his life. This culminated in meeting his wife, Elizabeth, whom we are delighted to welcome today along with two of their children, as well as Russell’s mother, Doreen.
Russell certainly has his clock sorted. A family man at heart – filling every moment of life with Lizzie and his children Charlotte, William and Victoria – Russell’s generosity spreads to provide opportunity for all, constantly pushing to remove barriers and inequities and to encourage all to think of science as an opportunity for themselves and a way to liberate the truth.
Russell is a champion, a national lead and ambassador for science, education and public engagement. As a natural orator and columnist, he is engaging, personable and humorous, even to the extent of publishing articles on how scientists can be a ‘hit’ at cocktail parties. To me, his utmost attributes are his generosity and scientific vision that provides the powerful source of advocacy, mentorship and advice that Bristol continues to benefit from today. Russell is as at home in the academic environment of Oxford and the wider university fraternity as he is being interviewed on Radio 4.
Currently, Russell is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Director of Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and the Chair of Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology. For his discoveries he has been awarded many prizes across the world. Beyond his scientific publications, he is the co-author of Rhythms of Life a popular science book on circadian rhythms and despite his dislike of a ‘publish or perish’ world, his bibliography is enviable. Unlike one of his mentors who advised he would retire if he published in a high-impact scientific journal such as Cell – Russell has succeeded (and more than once!) with such achievements. Moreover, he has not retired and he remains as energetic as ever. Professor Foster’s contribution to science has been recognised by being made a Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, culminating in the 2015 New Year’s honours with the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Madam Chancellor, I present to you Russell Grant Foster as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.