'Dreary' Dundee is the place to be

November 28, 2003

Dundee University is the best UK scientific institution to work in, according to the results of an international survey of life scientists.

A survey of several thousand researchers by the journal The Scientist has ranked Dundee as the third-best place to work in the world outside the US - behind only Canada's Dalhousie University and France's INRA research centre in Versailles. Dundee easily beat competition from Manchester University - the only other UK institution in the list - which took seventh place.

The Scottish city has invariably been painted as a grim and dreary place.

"People have this image of Dundee where everyone's unemployed and everything's falling to bits," said Dario Alessi of Dundee's School of Life Sciences. "It's a totally wrong impression. Scientists from all over the world come here to work."

These include Sir David Lane, widely predicted to be a future Nobel prizewinner, who has just left the School of Life Sciences to set up a department of surgery and oncology at Dundee.

"It's probably one of the trendiest areas of research to be in at the moment," Professor Alessi said . "Scientifically, it's one of the most stimulating places to work and a nice place to live."

The poll found that the top priority for researchers was good relationships with colleagues. Sociability and cooperation are the hallmarks of the 650-strong school.

It is noted for husband-and-wife teams, and seven babies were born last year to mothers in the 250-strong Wellcome Trust Biocentre alone.

French-born Professor Alessi met his wife, Spaniard Ana Cuenda, in the Medical Research Council's Protein Phosphorylation Unit, which is helping to underpin the next generation of anti-cancer drugs.

The community's size and intimacy lends itself to collaboration, Professor Alessi said. He has access to more than 500 scientists within two minutes of his lab.

"The advantage of Dundee is that it's very small. Communication in science is so important, but you can't do these sorts of things in London or Oxford. I've had a few good ideas for experiments arising from evenings in the pub."

Pauline Schaap, who came from the Netherlands as a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow, was warned of how grim Dundee could be. "But the location is beautiful on the River Tay. The air is clean. The quality of living is very high. I really like it here."

The second priority in The Scientist poll was good facilities, and Dundee's ethos is to get the best equipment and share it.

"That's very unusual," said Jason Swedlow, a senior research fellow.

In the past five years, the school has won more than £100 million in external research grants. Last week, it opened the £3.5 million Wellcome Trust Laboratories with state-of-the art equipment.

Another plus is that all the "bog-standard" equipment is bought and maintained centrally, Dr Swedlow said. "Typically, you may run a lab but you also have to chase the centrifuge repair man. Here you find yourself with more of that precious commodity, time."

Professor Schaap said that when there were quarrels in research centres, they were generally about space. But in Dundee, everyone has enough space to work in. "It's one of the best institutes I've ever been in. I want to stay here."

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