Tribute to an exceptional scientist
I just returned from leave to hear the sad news that former Life Sciences Director Professor Dame Louise Johnson has passed away. Even though it is business as usual, it is clear that such loss is affecting many. I vividly remember in 2003 preparing the announcement of her appointment at Diamond and meeting her for the first time at her Oxford office. When asked “why Diamond?” she gently replied “because no-one else will, as this post is considered to be too risky.” She was confident in her sense of duty, confident that she would just bring it to fruition… and she did.
Although Louise had retired from her formal duties at the University of Oxford in late 2007 and our Institute in 2008, she remained involved with activities at Diamond up until early 2011.
Her sense of influence will be a hallmark many will remember. She had the ability to make you do the impossible with her positive and ever encouraging words. Many regard her as exceptional and she truly was.
The impossible that she has achieved can actually be seen in the physical display of the infrastructure that she had the vision for, while she directed our life sciences programme. She had the idea for the embedded laboratory for membrane proteins, and, having secured external funding, she drove the idea into reality. Today, we see the fruits of her vision continued by the success of the work undertaken there under the leadership of world leading scientist Prof So Iwata. As a result of her initial vision we also have a laboratory which is the aspiration of other synchrotrons. But she did not stop there! She played a catalytic role in the planning of the Research Complex at Harwell.
Beyond all the funding she helped secure she grew and nurtured a team of extremely talented scientists whom she continually inspired. She was a Science director with capital ‘S’; she focussed on science with no micromanagement, but with an ability to make you feel entrusted to do your best and actually inspired you to make you achieve it. With Louise there were no negotiations…you just got things done, whether it was science or anything else.
Her nurturing attitude led to a keen interest in passing on skills to developing countries and in the Middle East. She was an elected associate member of the Third World Academy of Science and a supporter of the SESAME light source in Jordan.
She was always on top of everything, always learning about new areas beyond her central interest in crystallography and she managed to encourage other sciences at Diamond as a result. She could spur scientists on by learning so much about their area that they were never left unchallenged. She always demanded that the best science was delivered!
There will be many attempts to capture her life, but her friends, colleagues and ‘science family’ at Diamond, in the UK as well as throughout the world, will always hold her as an inspiration, from the fantastic science she achieved, to the support, encouragement and care she showed.
As a graduate student, she contributed to the substrate binding studies that led directly to the first understanding, at the structural level, of the mechanism by which an enzyme achieves rate enhancement. She has had a lifetime’s experience in macromolecular crystallography and her 1976 co-authored book with Tom Blundell is considered a classic.
At Oxford, Louise worked for some years on the much larger and more complex enzyme, glycogen phosphorylase, which controls glycogen metabolism and is regulated in response to adrenaline and the cell’s need for energy. At the time, glycogen phosphorylase was a massive challenge that required tenacious efforts, but which yielded not only an understanding of the catalytic mechanism, but also a demonstration of how enzymes can be regulated through conformational transitions in response to subtle changes in levels of signalling chemicals in the cell: behaviour that underpins the immensely responsive adaptability of living systems. Early on in her career, driven by the technical difficulties of her work, Louise was on the lookout for new methodology, and she quickly realised the potential of a new source of X-rays, in the synchrotron. These devices were conceived by and for physicists, and were initially considered unimportant for work with life sciences. Her vision made this otherwise. Over half of the work now undertaken at Diamond is biologically related.
Holding her dual responsibilities at Diamond and at the University of Oxford, as the David Phillips Professor, and Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics, her latest research focused on protein kinases and their regulation in cell cycle control and in transcription. She also contributed with her group at Oxford to structure based drug design for anti-cancer therapy, taking great satisfaction in the success of Imatimib, an anti-cancer agent developed for chronic myeloid leukemia, and a pioneering first drug designed to target kinase. She had a keen interest in new techniques which led her recently to join those pushing the barriers of the feasible, by looking at imaging living cells at sub-nanometre resolution by ultrafast X-ray diffraction on the Free Electron Laser (FLASH) in Hamburg. She took great delight in having the opportunity to take cells to Hamburg and actually participate in “flying” them on an FEL!
With over 250 scientific publications, she served on many advisory committees the world over. Louise leaves a glorious track record of honours, medals and prizes along with a rich teaching career with over 30 graduates successfully supervised.
Her career spanned five decades:
University College, London (1962) Graduated with B.Sc. (Hons) Physics.
The Royal Institution, London (1965) Ph.D., University of London.
Department of Biophysics, Yale University. Post-doctoral research assistant in Prof. F.M. Richards Laboratory.
Departmental Demonstrator in the Zoology Department, University of Oxford.
Janet Vaughan Lecturer in Biophysics at Somerville College, Oxford.
University Lecturer in Molecular Biophysics, University of Oxford.
Additional Fellow and Janet Vaughan Lecturer, Somerville College, Oxford.
David Phillips Professor in Molecular Biophysics, University of Oxford.
Professorial Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
Honorary Fellow, Somerville College Oxford.
Director Life Sciences, Diamond Light Source.
In the world of science we often state that we merely stand on the shoulders of giants. Another giant has sadly passed.
Professor Dame Louise N. Johnson, FRS, DBE, 26.09.1940 – 25.09.2012
Eminent Scientist, exceptional supervisor, caring colleague, dear friend, devoted wife, mother and grandmother who will be deeply missed.
Isabelle Boscaro-Clarke, Head of Communications, Diamond Light Source, on behalf of Diamond staff.
obituary by Sir Tom Blundell [Acta Cryst. (2012). D68, 1588-1590