Biology News: HoD letter from Professor George Ratcliffe

Professor Liam Dolan stood down after the usual five year stint as Head of Department last autumn and it fell to me to take over the reins. Liam, whose leadership in the wake of the loss of the Tinbergen Building has been highly commended by the University, continues as the department’s Director of Innovation and Development. So we shall continue to benefit from his wisdom and insight as the projects initiated during his term of office come to fruition.

I am pleased to report that the Department is in good shape. This is not just a ‘well he would say that’ declaration, but the opinion of the periodic joint review of the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology that reported towards the end of last year. The panel looked in forensic detail at teaching, research and operational matters, and on the whole were very impressed by their findings. It is pleasing to have a seal of approval, but we are taking this as a signal to build on our strengths rather than to continue as we are, and two matters are under intense discussion.

First, with our colleagues in Zoology, we are planning to replace the existing course with a four year degree that will better equip our graduates for life after Oxford. Many will recall the difficulty of shoe horning their project into the constraints of the current course, and one of the purposes of revising the course is to eliminate this difficulty by having a project-based fourth year. Lindsay Turnbull and Renier van der Hoorn, two relatively new members of the Department, have been leading the discussions from the Plant Sciences side and both would testify to the complexity of achieving what would appear to be an entirely straightforward evolution of the course. Given a fair wind I hope that we shall have agreement from both the University and the Colleges to make this change in time for the next Admissions round.

Secondly, again with Zoology, we are exploring the possibility of Plant Sciences moving into the building that is expected to replace the Tinbergen Building. It seems that a replacement building could house three or four Departments, not just Experimental Psychology and Zoology, and there would be clear benefits in bringing two organismal biology Departments under the same roof. Will this happen? We shall have to wait and see, but the clock is ticking on the time-limited temporary accommodation that is being made available for Experimental Psychology and Zoology, and there is a great incentive to develop a plan that will make the best use of an unprecedented opportunity to enhance research and teaching in Oxford Biosciences.

Notwithstanding these distractions, life in the Department continues much as usual. My colleagues continue to excel in their research, publishing findings of great significance across the full range of plant biology; and in a metrics-driven world three of them – Andy Hector, Lee Sweetlove and Renier van der Hoorn – were again identified as Highly Cited Researchers by Clarivate Analytics, indicating exceptional impact in their fields of research. We have also converted the former Forestry library into a much-needed computer teaching room, and amongst the staff our first apprentice – James Ritchie – completed his training in plant specimen conservation in the Herbaria. Of course all this is old news and you can keep in touch via our website and social media channels.

R. George Ratcliffe

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