Tuesday 31st March 2020 was Professor Doug Higgs’ last day as Director of the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (MRC WIMM) and the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit (MRC MHU). Professor Higgs started as Director of the MRC MHU in 2000, and in 2012, he also took over as the Director of the overarching MRC WIMM. He is one of the world’s leading academic haematologists and his legacy as Director includes the establishment of exceptional facilities, including cutting edge technologies in imaging, cell sorting, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.
Professor KJ Patel takes over as the new Director of both the MRC WIMM and MRC MHU. Professor Patel is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and a member of EMBO. The Patel group currently investigates the genetic and physiological foundations of DNA crosslink repair, explaining why this is essential in haematopoiesis.
Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of the MRC, said: “KJ will be building on the formidable work of Doug Higgs, who has shown superb leadership of both MRC establishments over the years. Doug is a distinguished and internationally recognised leader in his field and will continue his research into blood disorders at Oxford.”
During his directorship, Professor Higgs has assembled a world-leading group of scientists working to understand the causes of inherited and acquired blood diseases and the MRC WIMM has been a model of how to translate discoveries at the lab bench to treatment at the bedside.
Despite the closure of the MRC WIMM due to the COVID-19 pandemic preventing the planned much-deserved send-off for Professor Higgs within the Institute, messages from the research community have been pouring in, filled with reminisces and gratitude for him.
Professor Hugh Watkins, Head of the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, said “I’m imagining a loud and sustained, virtual, round of applause ringing out across the WIMM. I have always admired Doug’s devotion to the Institute and the people who work there, and have been in awe of his detailed knowledge of everyone’s science and needs, and the way he has combined these things to make the WIMM an even better place to work.
Doug’s leadership has been inspirational and selfless; we all owe him a great deal. I am very pleased that the Higgs group will be continuing its work within the Institute.”
Professor Richard Gibbons, lead of the Gibbons: ATRX Group at the MRC MHU and MRC WIMM, said “Professor Higgs has been an inspirational mentor to many scientists who have become leaders in their fields. He is one of the UK’s leading scientists and the WIMM has been very fortunate to have benefitted from his leadership and example.”
Professor Higgs’ area of interest is the thalassaemias; inherited anaemias where there is a defect in the production of the oxygen-carrying blood pigment, haemoglobin. This common condition affects tens of thousands of children born each year across the globe. Professor Higgs’ work has led both to an understanding of the many ways this important condition arises and to internationally adopted methods for diagnosis and treatment.
By understanding the causes of thalassemia he has developed an unprecedented depth of knowledge into the architecture of a genetic region, which has provided an invaluable model for learning more about how genes are turned on and off.
On Twitter, people also expressed their thanks to Professor Higgs for his kindness, support and mentorship, noting how he is a “great scientist, supervisor, mentor, collaborator, role model”, “a terrific leader” and even “the best drummer ever to emerge from the University!” Many are looking forward to more great science from Professor Higgs and his group, and to future collaborations.