Interview with Jackie Hunter

We talk to the research council CEO about pharmaceutical drugs modelling and a childhood interest in studying animal remains

January 14, 2016
Jackie Hunter, Stratified Medical
Source: Tim Smith/BBSRC

Jackie Hunter has more than three decades of experience in the bioscience research sector and has been chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) since 2013. She holds a personal chair at St George’s, University of London, which was awarded in recognition of her contribution to bioscience research. At the end of February, she takes over as chief executive of Stratified Medical, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence to evolve the process of pharmaceutical research and development.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in 1956.

How has this shaped you?
I was lucky enough to spend my childhood in the countryside, which gave me a lifelong interest in natural history. One of the reasons I was attracted to the BBSRC role was its pivotal contribution to agricultural research in the UK.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role?
I think my experience in drug discovery and development will enable the new company to harness the power of data to optimise the selection of the most relevant targets for drug discovery. People forget that when you embark on working on a particular drug target you are committing a significant amount of resources, time and money – so picking the right one is absolutely crucial.

Throughout your career you’ve maintained close links with the academy. Do you hope that this will continue at Stratified?
Absolutely. Given our proximity to the [Francis] Crick [Institute] and excellent institutions such as University College London, I am hoping that we can build really strong links with the academic community locally as well as across the UK and beyond. One of the reasons the company is located in the UK is the strength of its basic biological and biomedical science.

Do you think that UK universities are lagging behind other higher education sectors in commercialising their research?
My that there are some very good links between UK academia and industry. Where the UK could improve is in enabling a more entrepreneurial culture where there is the space and funding for budding entrepreneurs and where young companies can experiment and grow. There is a more risk-averse culture in the UK.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or get a job?
As a scientist, I would have had to have gone to university. I was the first person in my family to go to university – my mother was really bright but never had the opportunity, because of her background, to do so. Not only that, she even had to give up work when she got I would always feel that I had to make the most of the opportunities I was offered.

What keeps you awake at night?
What I really worry about is that we are not having informed scientific debates about how technology is changing, and will change, our lives. Whether we are talking about synthetic biology, gene editing, sensor technologies or cybersecurity, we need scientists, policymakers, companies and the public to engage in this dialogue. We need to talk about the benefits of science and the risks but also put these in the context of societal need.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a scientist, according to my family, and two incidents stand out. In my wanderings in the fields around our house, I found a lamb’s leg (the rest obviously having been eaten by a fox) and hid it for further observation in a plastic bag. Unfortunately, I was not old enough to understand the concept of maggots, much to my mother’s distress. She was also distressed when I put blood samples from cows (taken from the farm next door) in the fridge so that I could look at them under my microscope.

What do you do for fun?
I get a lot from my garden, although gardening isn’t always fun; I love cooking and trying new recipes and I like a gentle run. When I was young, I had bad asthma and couldn’t run. In fact, I was in hospital many times in my teens with asthma attacks so now the ability to be able to run (although not fast!) is something I treasure. My work-life balance has always been provided by my husband and daughter and the rest of my family and friends – I would be completely lost without them all.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I loved my university days. As an undergraduate I was definitely a party animal but involved myself [at Bedford College, University of London] in more than my degree – I worked at the bar, was publicity officer for the students’ union, and was a fairly uninhibited dancer at the balls and discos. Unfortunately for my family, and much to their embarrassment, the dancing still persists.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Being on University Challenge. There was a selection test and everyone was amazed that I got in. We went up to Manchester and had a great time although our supporters’ coach broke down at Watford Gap and they never arrived. We lost, but I think to the eventual finalists. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have more confidence, fear failure and what other people think of you less, and always do what you enjoy.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I have developed an enormous admiration for ministers – their lives are not their own and they work incredibly hard. I definitely could not do it. Of course the policy I would ask for is a bigger budget for science.


Hayley Jones has been appointed Queen Margaret University’s first Children’s University education liaison officer to help boost educational opportunities for young people in the east of Scotland. QMU is the first higher education institution in the region to host the Children’s University, which aims to help pupils become confident learners and broaden their horizons. “I have a real passion for widening access to higher education and believe the Children’s University project is a fantastic way to encourage and support young people to enrich their learning in their own time,” said Ms Jones.

John Latham, the vice-chancellor of Coventry University, has been elected deputy chair of the University Alliance. Professor Latham, who took up his three-year position at the beginning of January, succeeds Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln. “I’m looking forward to working with all our institutions to make the difference to our cities and regions through high quality teaching and research with impact,” said Professor Latham. “During Mary’s time…University Alliance has made a significant contribution to the future of higher education policy and debates on universities’ role in society. This is a robust foundation to build on as we face the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Robert Gordon University has appointed Tavish Scott, former Holyrood government minister and current Member of the Scottish Parliament for Shetland, as visiting professor in its Aberdeen Business School.

Kerensa Jennings, a journalist, author and former BBC executive, has joined the University of Huddersfield as visiting professor of media, strategy and communications.

Cardiff University has announced the appointment of Stuart Palmer as chair of the university’s council. Professor Palmer is the former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick.

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