Celebrating physiology: an interview with David Paterson MAE

Celebrating physiology: an interview with David Paterson MAE

David Paterson, current President of the Physiological Society, was in Cardiff on 29th September to mark the life and work of neurophysiologist Thomas Graham Brown FRS (1882-1965).

About David Paterson MAE

David Paterson MAE is a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford at the University of Oxford. He is Head of the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics. Professor Paterson was Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physiology from 2011 to 2016 and Consulting Editor for Physiology from 2016 to 2021He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (2003) an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand (2014) and a Fellow of the American Physiological Society (2019). He was elected as a member of The Academia Europaea in 2021. Professor Paterson is President of The Physiological Society which held its latest roadshow in Cardiff on 29th September.  

The interview

Could you tell us a little about your background and the key highlights from your career.

“I am a New Zealand born British physiologist and academic having been a graduate from the University Otago in New Zealand, University of Western Australia, and University of Oxford. Although not overly academic as an undergraduate given my commitment to athletics, mountains and karate, I was fortunate to receive a Hackett Scholarship from Western Australia to study in the University Laboratory of Physiology (ULP), Oxford in the mid 1980s, where I completed my Doctor of Philosophy on chemoreception and breathing. My choice of university was very much influenced by the late John Coote, Bowman Professor of Physiology at Birmingham, whom I met in Kathmandu when our expeditions briefly crossed paths. He invited me to visit and encouraged me to apply for a place at Oxford, even though my preference at the time was UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). However, after my interview with Ebbe Petersen and Dan Cunningham I was sold on New College, Oxford given the great legacy of respiratory physiology and the interesting work they and Bob Torrance were doing on arterial chemoreceptors. The rest is history. 

As a research student in Oxford, this was a formative period for me since I was exposed to outstanding scholars and mentoring. In particular, E.S. Petersen, D.J.C. Cunningham, R.W. Torrance, P.C.G. Nye, and P.A. Robbins all had a profound influence on my studies on the control of breathing, and later D. Noble FRS, T. Powell and Hilary Brown when I learned patch clamping of cardiac cells as a post-doc. My interest in hypoxia and high altitude physiology continued from 1987-91 with expeditions to Peru and three to the Himalaya. Two with John Coote who became a life-time friend and colleague. It was an honour to speak at his funeral in 2018. As I said, ‘There are not too many conversations that begin with, I first met John Coote in a bar in Kathmandu in 1984 … a great man who was never fully recognised by the system.’ 

Throughout my time at Oxford, P.B.C. Matthews FRS was a valued mentor to me, the Professors, professor. I got to know him better when elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at his College, Christ Church that was probably facilitated by the Rolleston Memorial Prize for my thesis. These were two highlights and stepping stones for me, which probably helped secure my appointment as a University Lecturer in the ULP and election to a Fellowship at Merton College. Professor Sir Colin Blakemore FRS was Head of Department at the time, and in his charismatic way, presented me with a bottle of wine when offering the post. Memorable because my daughter had just been born. Indeed, I have always felt that I had the pick of some of best Colleges Oxford could offer.

There are many research highlights for me as an academic. Dan Cunningham introducing me to Sir Roger Bannister and transitioning into autonomic neuroscience, and my group performing some of the first viral vector gene transfer experiments with nNOS into the peripheral nervous system to drive cardiac cholinergic neurotransmission. We then went onto to make site-specific viral vectors to turn down excessive cardiac sympathetic excitability associated with several primary cardiovascular diseases. Another highlight was meeting Professor Abe Guz and hosting him as an emeritus professor when he retired from Charing Cross Hospital. What fun we had doing experiments that are still being cited today in the The Journal of Physiology over 20 years later. But probably the most defining feature of my career is seeing those who trained with me become professors in their own right, alongside others who have outstanding careers in clinical medicine and surgery.

Academics are naturally curious and like to travel and therefore being able to connect with colleagues in Auckland has been very rewarding. In particular, with Peter Hunter FRS who had been a student in the ULP in the 1970s with my predecessor at Merton, Derek Bergel. My election as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand certainly completed a circle for me. 

Finally, being able to promote physiology has always been important to me, both as Editor-in-Chief of Experimental Physiology, then The Journal of Physiology, and now as President of The Physiological Society of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Today I like to think physiology is in reasonable shape at Oxford. As Head of Department, we have been world ranked number 1 for the last three years in Anatomy and Physiology due to the outstanding talent in the department. This has been driven by a strong culture of research-led teaching as we train the next generation.  Most pleasing.”

You became President of The Physiological Society in 2020. What have you achieved so far and what are your priorities and ambitions for the Society over the next few years? 

“Well, I have really been the covid President. Too much online. Probably best left to others to say what I have achieved. I am most proud of our Blue Plaque scheme [i] commemorating the legacy of discovery of physiology around the UK and Ireland, refocusing Council’s strategy and promoting the new Members Forum. Going forward, we hope to reconnect with our base in universities and hold smaller focused meetings in those institutions, which has been facilitated by our blue plaque visits. I think it is important as a membership organisation that we have this connection and give trainees the opportunity to speak and be challenged as we were as students and young post-docs. I certainly valued that training.”

The Physiological Society’s latest Celebrate Physiology roadshow was held in Cardiff on 29th September. What did those attending gain from the event? 

“This was a celebration of physiology at Cardiff and acknowledging the contribution of one of its own great scientists, TG Brown FRS. It was also an opportunity for the Society to reconnect post covid and talk about our plans and the exciting future of the discipline.”

One of the highlights of the roadshow was the unveiling of a blue plaque dedicated to renowned physiologist Thomas Graham Brown (1882–1965). Could you tell us more about the person and the place that were commemorated?

Thomas Graham Brown was a neurophysiologist well known in the 1920’s for the detailed studies of reflex movement and posture, which he made by Sherrington’s methods. He also undertook seminal experiments on the neural control of locomotion between 1910 and 1915. Although elected to the Royal Society in 1927, his locomotion research was largely ignored until the 1960s when it was championed and extended by the distinguished neuroscientist, Anders Lundberg. So we were delighted to be commemorating T. Graham Brown FRS with a plaque on the School of Biosciences given his legacy to discovery in physiology in Cardiff.”

Congratulations on your election as a Member of Academia Europaea.  What does it mean to you? 

“It is a great honour to be made a member of AE. Especially now since European unity is never more important as we support our colleagues and friends in Ukraine, and those in Russia who bravely oppose this brutal war. As academics we foster the pursuit of truth and knowledge, which transcends national borders. Academia Europaea is the custodian of these values, which is why I value being a member.”

[i] A blue plaque is a permanent sign installed in a public place in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event, or former building on the site, serving as a historical marker. (Wikipedia)

Updated 4th October 2022. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk

Interview Spotlight Series

Interview Spotlight Series

Read our series of interviews with Members of Academia Europaea connected with the Cardiff Knowledge Hub. Our members share their career highlights and their views on key issues in research.


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