Professor Chris Willis
Winner: 2020 Natural Product Chemistry Award
University of Bristol
For outstanding contributions across the broad spectrum of natural product chemistry.
Celebrate Professor Chris Willis
With the widespread problem of increasing antimicrobial resistance, there is an urgent need for the discovery and development of new-cost effective ways to combat infections. Professor Willis’ research centres on understanding how bacteria and fungi produce biologically active compounds (natural product biosynthesis) with the aim of harnessing the complex biosynthetic machinery to produce novel bioactive compounds cleanly and efficiently. This work brings together an interdisciplinary team of scientists and combines organic synthesis, structural biology, computational methods and synthetic biology with a focus on lead compounds for the generation of new antibiotics and agrochemical agents.Read full biography
Following her undergraduate degree at the University of London, Chris moved to the University of Sussex for her D. Phil and then to the University of Bristol as a Research Fellow with Professor Jake MacMillan FRS, working as part of an interdisciplinary team to understand the role of gibberellins in plant growth and development. This sowed the seeds for her lifelong interest in natural products. She was appointed to a Lectureship in Organic Chemistry at the University of Bristol in 1990 and promoted to Professor in 2000. Since 2013 she has been Head of Organic and Biological Chemistry in Bristol.
Research in her group centres on natural products from fungi and bacteria which are rich sources of compounds of medicinal and agrochemical value. With the widespread problem of increasing antimicrobial resistance, there is an urgent need for the discovery and development of new-cost effective ways to combat infections. By combining organic synthesis with synthetic biology, Chris and her collaborators are generating new biologically active compounds with a focus on new antibiotics and agrochemical agents. In addition, new biocatalysts are being developed for the clean and efficient synthesis of bioactive targets.
She has made major contributions to the wider community including the organisation of many international conferences, committees of the International Isotope Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry including Chairman of the RSC Heterocyclic and Synthesis Group and is currently an elected member of RSC Organic Division Council.
Outside work, Chris enjoys music, gardening and sport and plays table tennis regularly in the local league.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
A career in chemistry is challenging and rewarding. I would encourage young scientists to seek the advice of mentors as they progress through their careers. If your chosen path is in academia, good mentors can make a world of difference – advising on teaching techniques, drafts of research proposals and papers as well as giving words of encouragement when things don’t go quite to plan.
Why do you think interdisciplinary research and collaboration is important in science?
There are many significant challenges to be addressed in science and often these lie at the interface of chemistry with other disciplines. Effective teams are more than the sum of their parts. When working collaboratively, it is common for scientists from different disciplines to pool their expertise to create new ideas and novel solutions to advance science. A further feature of collaborative, interdisciplinary research is the excellent training that it gives to younger scientists which will be of value in their future careers.