Student turns Professor at one of the top Universities

The 45-year-old who attended the Watery Lane School from Year Seven through to Sixth Form has been made Professor of Computational Biochemistry at the University of Oxford.

The promotion is a result of his work using computer models to improve understanding of brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism.

Attributing his career choice to his studies at the school, he said: “I had a fantastic time at Newent – definitely some great memories. Perhaps unsurprisingly my favourite subjects were Chemistry, Biology and Physics. I still recall to this day many of the anecdotes that Mr Latham, my Chemistry Teacher, told us. He was particularly memorable and probably the biggest influence on me in pursuing Chemistry at undergraduate level.  I must also credit Mr Des Marshall, my Sixth Form tutor, who had his little library of Biology books and encouraged us to dive in for ourselves and read around the subject a bit.  This was the first taste of how things might work at university and I thought that was great.”

He added: “I was very lazy as a pupil, which of course all the teachers spotted and they kept dropping non-subtle hints in my reports which I still have at home! I can recall nearly all of my teachers quite vividly and enjoyed most lessons at school.”

On leaving the school after A-Levels, Professor Biggin, whose Mother lives in Highnam, first read Computer-aided Chemistry at the University of Surrey. He then did his doctorate in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Oxford, which led to a research position at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California. Following further post-doctoral positions in Oxford’s Department of Biochemistry and a research fellowship between 2007 and 2012, he became Associate Professor at Oxford before recently being awarded the title Full Professor. 

Congratulating the past pupil on his promotion and success, Newent Community School Principal Alan Johnson said: “There is no school in the world that is better than its teachers, and our teachers are some of the best there are. Each time I hear about some of the tremendous achievements of our ex-students it makes me incredibly proud of our staff and our school. I am equally proud that we have helped pave the way for Philip’s research into brain related conditions which will undoubtedly help so many people.”

Explaining how his work aims to lead to new treatments for brain-related diseases, Professor Biggin said: “Communication within the brain is performed by a complicated arrangement of specialized cells known as neurons.  Neurons can talk to each other by emitting small molecules called neurotransmitters.  These neurotransmitters make their way from one neuron to a neighboring neuron and bind to a class of protein molecules termed ion channels.  This interaction between the neurotransmitter and the ion channel then causes the latter to change shape and open.  When it opens it allows ions like sodium and potassium to pass into or out of the neuron.  The neuron senses this change in ion distribution and uses that to initiate an electrical signal all the way along the length of the neuron.  When the signal reaches the end of that neuron, it might also send out its own packet of neurotransmitters and so on and so on. We can represent the dynamics of the ion channel and the neurotransmitter by a computational model and research in my group is focused on understanding exactly how the ion channel changes shape to allow it to open (and indeed how later it closes again).  This is important because when this process goes wrong, it can lead to some serious diseases including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and many others. The hope is that by understanding the details of how the ion channel proteins change shape, we can design better drugs to treat some of these diseases.”

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