UCL News


Interview with new Dean of UCL Biomedical Sciences

18 April 2007

Professor Edward Byrne spoke to UCL Communications shortly after taking up the post of Executive Dean of the new UCL Faculty of Biomedical Sciences and Head of the Medical School.

The interview covered his career, his role as dean and his priorities for the faculty.

A return to London

The appointment marks a return to London for Professor Byrne, who spent 1980-1982 at Queen Square - home to the UCL Institute of Neurology and its associated teaching hospital, the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery - as Muscular Dystrophy Research Fellow. During this time he was awarded the Queen Square Prize. Professor Byrne recalls: "I did my medical training and most of my neurology training in Australia. I came to Queen Square and completed my training there and did a doctorate in the early '80s. It was a wonderful experience, because the institute was then - as it is now - a fabulous place. Then as now, it combined basic research and clinical research and was a player on the world stage, with academics of absolutely world-class standing.

"I went into neurology, particularly neuromuscular disease, just before CAT scans and the like became ubiquitous. It was a very difficult diagnostic speciality, intellectually demanding and appealing to me as a young physician. I realised quickly that it was an area about which we understood almost nothing. I don't think I would have been happy in a neurological career if I hadn't been able to combine that with a basic science career - that is, without trying to understand the causes of the condition I was treating as a physician. I got into mitochondrial pathology quite early, and the field opened up in the most wonderful way, and I was able to play a part in some of those advances."

Being Executive Dean

Professor Byrne describes the excellence of current research in his faculty - and in UCL Life Sciences - and sees his new role as "helping a university which is already extremely good become even better. I think it's very important, not only for this university, but for London and the UK, that the university performs at the top level. If it does so, it will play a major part in ensuring that this country is a significant stakeholder in biomedicine in the years ahead.

"I think my role as Executive Dean is very much that of a facilitator, to try to help the faculty to enunciate and fulfil its vision and potential. Different parts of UCL have been renowned for a long time, but the university as a whole - while very prominent in Europe - isn't as prominent across the world as it should be. I'm couching that in the most ambitious terms: it does well, it's among the top four universities in biomedicine in Europe, but in terms of organisation and focus, it's not, I believe, quite up there with the top three or four universities in America. There's no question that it is up there in terms of a critical mass of excellent people. It has huge breadth and depth in biomedicine, and a long tradition of really significant medical discovery. Because of those characteristics, there's absolutely no reason this couldn't be one of the world's leading universities in biomedicine."

Biomedical research is expensive, says Professor Byrne, with high infrastructure costs: "We need to organise our activities in such a way that the finances add up. I'm absolutely committed to continuing the extremely good work carried out by Professor Mike Spyer as Acting Executive Dean, and making sure we get to a sustainable financial position, with reserves to invest in opportunities as they arise."

Medical education

Professor Byrne is also Head of the UCL Medical School, a combined portfolio he feels offers many advantages: "Curricula devised and taught by leading researchers in their fields are key to the quality of education at a research-intensive university such as UCL. It helps us recruit students: the most promising minds want exposure to the most accomplished minds. Our medical students, in particular, benefit not only from direct contact with researchers at the forefront of their disciplines, but from the exceptional clinical environments provided by our associated teaching hospitals. Through my leadership of the faculty, I will seek to expand and enhance the interaction between research and learning. Medical students also benefit from being part of a leading multifaculty university, with access to a range of academic pursuits, as well as cultural and social activities. These are all aspects of medical training that I consider to be critical, and I will work to ensure that such opportunities are safeguarded and enhanced."

A blueprint for the future

Results of the recent internal and external reviews of the biomedical and life sciences faculties included the bringing together of the former UCL Clinical Sciences departments with UCL's postgraduate medical research institutes in the new UCL Biomedical Sciences, as well as the grouping of it and UCL Life Sciences informally as the UCL School of Medical & Life Sciences (UCL SMLS). Professor Byrne says: "These reviews provided a blueprint for the way forward. Collaboration is the key word: first, among those departments now grouped within the new faculty and, second - under the banner of the new UCL SMLS - between them and their colleagues in UCL Life Sciences, where there is an astonishing quality of basic science.

"Our strengths across the board can be intensified by bringing activities together. We must concentrate resources on cross-cutting programmes, focused on major health themes of the time, where the university has a critical mass. And to provide those programmes with a fine support structure, including first-class enabling technologies. This clearly has to be done in a financially viable way. I firmly believe that all this is achievable. It will require hard work and buy-in to an ambitious vision, but if we pull this off, UCL's biomedical sphere will be the Harvard Medical School of Europe."

Professor Byrne thinks that a key aspect of achieving this promise will be the co-location of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) with UCL: "We now live in an era where, with the advances coming out of the human genome project, doors are opening in medical science like never before that require the basic scientist and the clinical scientist to work together, or for individuals to exist who cross both fields. The NIMR relocation is one of the most exciting things on the horizon in biomedicine, not only for London, not only for the UK, but for Europe. Bringing the NIMR into geographical proximity to UCL will allow a degree of cooperation and joint planning and resource-sharing, creating one of the leading biomedical precincts in the world. The excellence of the NIMR in many areas of basic science is complementary to activities here at UCL and its affiliated hospitals. Our fit will be extremely good. It will allow us to enhance translational programmes, linking basic science at the NIMR to basic and clinical science here. The NIMR is a jewel in the crown of UK biomedical science, and I think will be even more so in a close working relationship with UCL."

Being part of London's global university

Professor Byrne seeks collaboration well beyond the biomedical arena: "The multifaculty nature of the university, the fact that UCL is excellent in so many other areas, gives huge opportunities for biomedicine, because many of the most exciting advances are across traditional disciplines. Interaction between medicine and economics, between medicine and engineering, between medicine and architecture, between medicine and IT, these new interfaces are really where much of the exciting work is happening. So when I talk about having porous structures and activities, I'm not just referring to collaboration between the traditional medical research parts of the university, but between those parts and the rest of the university in the broadest sense. Now how one makes that happen is a key that we have to unlock, but unless the university unlocks it, it will be the worse for it."

Biomedicine will play a major part in UCL's status as London's global university, says Professor Byrne: "Biomedicine is a large part of this university and the different components of biomedicine already have major international engagements. Health now is a major global issue, and this university is preparing health graduates who will work in many different parts of the world in different stages of their career. So it's essential that their education is globally focused.

"Furthermore, biomedical research is by definition an activity played on the global stage. If one isn't engaged with and interfaced with key activities around the world, then one isn't competitive. Having said that, I believe that in biomedicine at UCL we have the opportunity to select very carefully one or two major partner universities, of a similar status to us, and add value for all concerned. I'd be interested in looking at one or two special relationships with the United States, and one in China - but that's a comment made very early in my time here."


Professor Byrne defines three priorities over the next two years: "I would like to see three things achieved. First, a cohesive approach to research across the whole of biomedicine at UCL, locked in, so it's something that people live and breathe and don't really have to think about any more. Porous boundaries, perhaps a little less concern about which part of the university is one's primary base. I realise that's not a trivial issue, because these things are very important to academics, but we must all be in alignment and integrated.

"Second, to have the financial issues sorted out and behind us, so that we are running efficiently and with improved support. And third, in line with that, to have undertaken a major push in benevolent funding. I think it's crucial that major biomedical activity at a university of this stature and excellence attracts considerable philanthropic support. We need to have the reserves to take on or develop strategically important areas of work."

To find out more about UCL Biomedical Sciences, use the link at the bottom of this article.

By Nicholas Tyndale, UCL Communications


Formerly Dean of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences at Monash University, Australia, Professor Byrne is a pioneering neuroscientist, combining an active clinical career with an outstanding contribution to basic neurological research. He began his career in Adelaide after graduating from the University of Tasmania in 1974. He was made Neurology Registrar at Adelaide Hospital in 1978. Upon returning to Australia in 1983, he was appointed Director of Neurology at St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, becoming Professor/Director in 1992. In 1995 Melbourne University awarded him a Doctorate of Science.

Professor Byrne was a founding director of the Melbourne Neuromuscular Research Unit and the Centre for Neuroscience. He was also made Professor of Experimental Neurology at the University of Melbourne. He has carried out pioneering research into neuromuscular disorders, is recognised worldwide for research into disorders in the mitochondrial DNA and played a role in the discovery of mitochondrial links to ageing. In 2006 he was honoured with induction as an Officer of the Order of Australia.

As Executive Dean of UCL Biomedical Sciences, he will lead the new faculty, formed in 2006 from the merger of the former UCL Faculty of Clinical Sciences with the postgraduate medical research institutes at UCL - namely, the UCL Eastman Dental Institute, the UCL Institute of Child Health, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and the UCL Institute of Neurology - as well as the UCL Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research. The new faculty comprises almost 2,000 academic and research staff.