Michael Wakelam, 1955-2020

Tributes paid to a researcher whose work proved a ‘game changer’ in our understanding of cellular fats

April 30, 2020
Michael Wakelam
Source: Tim Smith

A scientific leader, head of the life sciences research organisation the Babraham Institute, has died from a suspected Covid-19 infection.

Michael Wakelam was born in Liverpool on 15 July 1955 but grew up in London and then Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, where he attended the Ashby Boys’ Grammar School. He studied medical biochemistry at the University of Birmingham (1977) and went on to a PhD in biochemistry (1980). After postdoc positions at the University of Konstanz in Germany and Imperial College London, he became a lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1985. Eight years later, he returned to Birmingham as professor of molecular pharmacology in the Institute for Cancer Studies.

In 2007, Professor Wakelam was appointed director of the Babraham Institute, near Cambridge, an institute largely funded by strategic programme grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to study “the biology of how our bodies work, including what changes as we age and during disease”. Here, he developed his crucial work on lipids (cellular fats) and their function in the regulation of signalling pathways in normal and cancer cells, while providing a supportive environment for other researchers and forging strong links across the globe and with the commercial research community.

Simon Cook, head of knowledge exchange and commercialisation at the Babraham Institute, said: “Michael will be remembered by a wide international network for his encyclopedic knowledge of lipid analysis, metabolism and signalling combined with his open and generous personality. He was instrumental in developing the cutting-edge methods that made lipid mass spectrometry routine. This technique became a ‘game changer’ in the signalling field: the depth and breadth of information gave new insights into the complexity of lipid signalling and this was only possible because of Michael’s vision and persistence.”

He added: “Michael was a terrific role model [and] ever present at seminars and student posters, always asking questions and always available and approachable. He will be fondly remembered for usually turning up a few minutes late, often out of breath from running between buildings, but immediately ‘hooking in’ to the scientific discussion.

“His humanity always shone through, supporting many colleagues through difficult scientific and personal situations with great care, kindness and compassion. [He] would often draw on a well-stocked cupboard of personal experiences in chats with new parents about the more messy aspects of raising young children!”

Professor Wakelam died on 31 March from respiratory complications arising from a suspected Covid-19 infection and is survived by his wife Jane and their two sons.


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