Profile: Dr Catherine Pears
Dr Catherine Pears is Old Members’ Tutorial Fellow in Biochemistry and Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University. She teaches first year, second year and third year Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences undergraduates, covering genetic methods, cell cycle control and the molecular basis of signalling pathways, among other topics.
When and how did you decide to go into academia?
I knew from the first year of my undergraduate degree that I wanted to carry out research and never seriously considered any other career. I studied for my PhD and carried out all my postdoctoral research in research institutes, which tend to be focused on understanding one biological question. When I was applying to run my own research group I decided that working in a University would increase the breadth and scope of my academic interactions and that I would enjoy the interaction with undergraduates that comes from working in a University.
How did you find your area of research within biochemistry? How has your research evolved over the years?
It is very important to have a real passion for the subject and I have always been fascinated by development. How do all those different cell types end up in the right place to make a functioning animal or plant? I study this problem in a simple system, a social amoeba where the final structure only has two cell types, to simplify the problem. I started working on this problem during my PhD, somewhat by chance as the project sounded so interesting and I have worked on this same organism ever since. It is relatively easy to change the DNA sequence and ask what the consequences are for development, often with surprising results. Amazingly the concepts and pathways discovered apply to complicated systems like a mouse too!
Over the years my research has evolved, partly driven by technological advances, such as the ability to sequence genomes to identify mutated genes. New directions have also been driven by one of the most enjoyable aspects of research, which is building exciting and fruitful collaborations. So, for example, now I collaborate to use this same social amoeba to study the pathways that repair our genetic material and so help us understand the development of diseases like cancer which are caused by alterations to the DNA sequence when the repair pathways fail. It is exciting to learn about different areas and to use my knowledge and experience in a novel way.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Don’t let the detail overshadow the concepts, which are the interesting and exciting parts, and enjoy it.
Do you have advice for students at Univ?
To make the most of opportunities both academically and outside your studies, with the right balance, of course. Three or four years will pass by very quickly so take your chances to develop and find unexpected paths.
Have you faced any challenges pursuing academia?
There are many challenges, getting funding for research, asking the right scientific questions at the right time, finding enough time to read all the right papers and really think about problems deeply. I have developed a thick skin and learnt not worry about rejections. Working closely with the good friends I have made certainly helps through the dark days when somebody else has just published my latest exciting discovery before me!
What does 40 years of women at Univ mean to you?
It is a very exciting milestone and I am delighted to see the successful integration of women in all areas of College life. Of course it is a continuing process and there is still progress to be made but considering what advances there have been during such a small proportion of Univ’s life, I am very optimistic for the future.
You can read more about Dr Pears’ research in the Autumn issue of the Martlet.
Women at Univ 2019. Celebrating 40 years of achievement by women students, academics and staff, and recovering the history of women in the College from 1249 to the present day.
Published: 10 October 2019