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Jane Clarke in the lab
Professor Jane Clarke FRSC FMedSci


After teaching for 14 years, Jane found her passion in the study of protein folding; she returned to university, and now runs a research group.

Encouraged to ask ‘why?’

“My mother was a scientist; she always valued curiosity above everything so I spent my life being encouraged to ask ‘why?’” says Jane. However, her school gave her little encouragement to consider careers beyond those stereotypical for girls. “That’s probably why, when I got my degree, it never even occurred to me to do research; I was going to be a teacher like my mother.”

After studying biology, chemistry and physics at A-level, Jane went on to study biochemistry at the University of York. “The questions in biology interest me more than the questions in chemistry, but the techniques, quantitative nature and rigour of chemistry are what really attract me.”

After finishing her degree, Jane spent the next fourteen years teaching science and bringing up her two children. When her husband’s job took them to Atlanta in the US, Jane went in search of new opportunities. This took her back to being a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, where she gained a Master’s degree in applied biology.

“One of the professors there was Bud Suddath, a crystallographer in the chemistry department; he taught a course about protein structure and it was fascinating. So much had changed since I went to university and I just knew I wanted to do research into the relationship between protein sequence, structure and function. That was the Eureka moment; I am going to do this for the rest of my working life.”

Balancing family life with a PhD

On her return to the UK, Jane approached the biochemistry department at the University of Cambridge to gain a PhD position. But this proved far from easy. 

“They all turned me down but Bud had given me a letter for Alan Fersht who had recently moved to Cambridge. He was the top protein chemist in the world. I knocked on his door. He offered me a place to do a PhD in the chemistry department and I have never looked back.”

“When my children were little, I arranged childcare early in the mornings so that I could start and leave early in the lab. My supervisor was great; he never noticed how many hours I did. He only noticed how much I achieved in the hours I did. It’s that measuring achievement not measuring time spent that is important.” Following onto a post-doctoral position with Alan, Jane was allowed to develop her own research ideas and publish in her own right, which kick started her career.

Fostering that team spirit

Throughout her research, Jane has been funded by the Wellcome Trust. Currently as senior research fellow, her primary role is to carry out fundamental blue skies research into protein folding. Her research group uses biophysical studies to investigate protein folding at the atomistic level, as well as how misfolding is avoided. With all the information needed for proteins to fold into the correct shape encoded into the linear sequence of amino acids, Jane’s research also considers how changes in that sequence affect protein properties. “It’s a real big intellectual challenge just trying to understand how that works. There is plenty to do for a PhD student in three years,” she says.

Jane Clarke

Deliberately keeping her research group small and multidisciplinary, Jane maintains a close relationship to the science and sustains her curiosity by continually asking questions. “The great thing about research is when you find an answer to one question, it opens up four more avenues of research.” Jane cares passionately about attracting clever young women into scientific research and supporting them there. Indeed, half her group are female: “just by being a woman in science, you will attract good women to work with you.”

Heavily involved in the Athena Swan initiative within the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, Jane recently helped achieve their bronze award. “To get the Athena Swan bronze isn’t hard; what you have to do is evaluate what the department is like and come up with an action plan to improve it. In many ways our department was dreadful, but now it is improving since putting in the action plan. But we know we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Jane is one of only six women established academics within the department and the only one with children. “If younger women are looking at academics, they might assume that it’s not something that you can do as a mother. That is not true.” She emphasises that women can achieve highly but may need to go about things in a different way, “you can cut down the size of your group because its excellence that matters, not the quantity of work. Your work has to be world class, that’s the important thing.”

“I’m impatient now, I went to university in 1969 with feminism; everything was going to be great and different.” Jane sees that attitudes haven’t drastically changed, and with her granddaughter aged two, there is little time to sit back and wait for things to get better. She further questions “if we say we appoint the best, are we telling ourselves that forty percent of the chemists in our department aren’t the best?”. Jane has helped develop a leadership programme to enable young academics to develop their management and leadership skills.

“We have to believe that there are different ways of being successful. Success doesn’t always look like ‘us'.”

Proud

Jane’s biggest regret is that her mother never saw her finish her PhD, but she is amazed by the support she has received from her family.

“My grandson says to people - this is my granny, she is a scientist. Nurturing curiosity within my grandchildren is what I’m going to do next. All my family have always been proud of me.”

Jane’s advice to her grandchildren “Be curious, always ask ‘why?’”,

Words and interview by Jenny Lovell
Images by Nathan Pitt & Caroline Hancox, © University of Cambridge
Published December 2014

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