Professor David Stuart, FRS

Doctor of Science

Thursday 23 July 2015 at 10.30am - Orator: Professor Leo Brady

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

We all know about viruses. Whether it be this year’s flu, childhood diseases such as chickenpox, or the latest media horror story about Ebola: viruses are scary. But none of us know as much about viruses as David Stuart.

Professor David Stuart completed his first degree in Biophysics at King’s College London. He then moved to Bristol where he undertook PhD study in the Department of Biochemistry under the supervision of Dr Hilary Muirhead. Hilary was a no-nonsense kind of scientist for whom being one of the few female academics in the department for nearly thirty years was an irrelevance. This just-get-on-with-it attitude was clearly inspirational to Dave who has carved out a tremendously successful scientific career doing just that: quietly getting on with the impossible – and succeeding.

Dave came to Bristol to learn the then still emerging technique of protein crystallography. This is an almost mystical method by which the intricate details of the molecules that constitute life are determined through a complex combination of biochemistry, X-rays, physics, maths, and lots and lots of computing. It takes time, lots of time, and tremendous brain power. With Hilary, Dave learnt this trade as applied to a single – but very complex – protein that is integral to energy generation in our bodies. At the time this was a substantial achievement. However, it was clearly not impossible enough for Dave. After he left Bristol he went on to Oxford where he soon established his own research group. Not satisfied with only the huge challenge of using protein crystallography to study single proteins as everyone else was doing, Dave instead embarked on applying this technique to whole viruses. To appreciate the difficulty of this venture, at the time determination of the structure of a single protein could easily take several years.  Viruses typically comprise not just one but 300-400 proteins arranged in highly complex symmetrical arrays. Whole new techniques and approaches had to be developed to make their study possible. This included novel data collection methods that could only be achieved at extremely intense X-ray sources, high-energy physics devices known as synchrotrons. The UK had one of these. It was at Warrington, near Manchester.

The first time I met Dave Stuart there were flashing lights, security services and handcuffs. It was not a stag weekend. When Dave took on the challenge of studying a virus, he chose to work on not just any old benign virus, but foot and mouth disease virus. As you will all recall from its last outbreak in the UK cattle herds – cue pictures of bonfires of hundreds of burning cow carcasses – this virus is extremely contagious. It has devastating economic consequences when it spreads. The necessary containment and safety procedures required to study it are extremely onerous. But that didn’t stop Dave from embarking on this almost impossible endeavour. Dave had to repeatedly bring his virus samples to the synchrotron at Warrington for analysis. He was the only scientist I ever met there who had a security escort up the motorway, arriving with very carefully packaged samples handcuffed to security guards and handled to the most stringent security protocols. This was not science for the faint-hearted. Data collection was all done under the strictest of conditions, the paperwork for which probably rivalled the tremendous intellectual challenges of calculating such a demanding structure. But his eventual success with foot and mouth disease virus proved a tremendous tour de force and is still guiding vaccine development programmes to this day.

Undaunted by the handcuffs, Dave’s interest in structural virology lead him on to study other viruses. This included another cattle virus – bluetongue virus – which was the biggest protein structure ever determined at that stage. When HIV emerged as a major human infectious disease. Dave immediately became involved in the study of its crucial reverse transcriptase protein and how this could be targeted by effective drugs. His interest in viruses continues to this day.

Dave Stuart’s near-impossible scientific achievements have all required pushing new technological developments to their limits. As such, he has invariably been at the forefront of new initiatives, especially those that mix scientific disciplines. Here he has proven especially effective at driving UK science strategy. He was a key player in the case to invest £300 million to build a new UK synchrotron at Didcot, and today as its Life Sciences Director he spearheads its ongoing development. This includes unique facilities for studying highly contagious and nasty viruses. He has been instrumental in the development of cross-EU alliances to provide shared access to such large and expensive facilities. Dave has established a world-first facility, accessible to all, for producing samples of virtually any protein a scientist should chose to study. He has been instrumental in structural genomics – an extremely ambitious field aiming to determine the structures of whole genomes of proteins, hence facilitating new drug development. On top of all these ground-breaking and highly-influential initiatives, Dave still manages to find time to do really first-rate science.

Dave’s achievements have been recognised through many awards. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of 43, and is also a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. In 2006, he was awarded the Aminoff Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science for his ‘remarkable contributions in virus crystallography’.

Nowadays in science it has become very fashionable to blend bits from different disciplines: a bit of genetics, some biochemistry, add in a bit of physics and a pinch of computing and maths – this is modern science. Professor Dave Stuart has been doing this for many years, long before it became fashionable. To our graduates today he is a tremendous inspiration: your degrees in biomedical sciences are just one first foothold in the huge edifice that is modern science. Dave has never allowed artificial disciplinary barriers to define his science. Knowledge is there for the picking and you should explore it at your leisure. His example should be an inspiration that you too can achieve the impossible.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor David Ian Stuart as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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