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Scientists of Wales: Professor Julie Williams

(September 01, 2014)


Professor Julie Williams

Professor Julie Williams

Without denying the excellence of the scientific achievements of ancient civilisations, notably Greek, Indian and Chinese and, perhaps pre-eminently, Arabic, it is fair to state that the 20th century surpassed all previous centuries in the extent and rapidity of scientific understanding and associated technological advances. A brief reflection on initial discoveries and then subsequent developments will suffice. Perhaps the most striking is in the means of personal communications from the simple telephone to today’s almost incredibly versatile hand-held devices. No less remarkable are the features of planetary communication such as radio (and radar), television, telemetry (including satellite devices) and the World Wide Web.

Another area of distinct change is in medicine; think of the control and sometimes elimination of illness, often in the context of public health legislation in so-called developed countries such as our own. And then there are the varieties of organ transplants or replacements – to the point where today it seems that such features are no longer deemed remarkable but are claimed as rights. Think then of the developments in trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes. Another significant area of change is the science of materials from metals to plastics and ceramics, some being products of scientific processing of raw materials, such as coal and crude oil, and others being new creations in the laboratory leading to mass outputs at the industrial site. All of these changes, which are clearly macroscopic, emanate from advances in studies of the microscopic, deep into the atomic structure of all substances, culminating (always a tentative word in science) last year in the announcement in CERN about the Higgs boson.

Of course, from one standpoint, these advances are indisputably beneficial, but, they are not without consequences that present their own sociological and moral challenges. For instance, the spread of planetary communication now means that nothing can be hidden. Instantly, we in Wales, through radio, television and mobile phone, know of calamities in far off lands wrought by man and by nature. The moral issue is whether or not to respond; it is no longer a case of 'had we known we would have helped'. Likewise in medicine the improvements in personal and public health – from measles to organ transplants – in developed countries should be available all over the world. Shouldn't they? On what philosophy can this be denied to people in Africa and Asia who know of the existence of these opportunities because they, too, even in their poverty, have the means of instant communication.

The advances of medicine up to about 1980 were mostly in the realm of physiology, about the human body as a macroscopic biochemical system of interconnected bones and tissue. The wonder of it all was beyond question. Soon, however, moral dilemmas began to arise, such as those associated with transplantation of organs. In Wales, this is an issue of current debate, based on morality, heading towards legislation.

Since about 1980, and increasing in rapidity since 2000, when the human genome project revealed its report, we have been and are in the realm of scientific studies of the human brain and associated human behaviour. This area is replete with moral dilemma, not least because we are not clear about differences between 'brain', 'mind', 'personality' and 'persona'. We are precisely in the condition and time, when the words of Aldous Huxley resound, 'Man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do whatever he likes'.

Should we experiment on the brain? Well, we have been and are already doing so. In many cases to good effect, in the sense that certain behaviours are modified and threats to life tempered by precise surgery. But should such surgery (just like a tablet) be applied to temper or control some behaviours?

For the purpose of this article let us concentrate on one feature of human behaviour (Alzheimer's disease) in which Professor Julie Williams is a specialist. Julie Williams was born and brought up in Merthyr Tydfil, which is some 25 miles north of Cardiff. She was a pupil at Ysgol Y Graig Primary School and at Vaynor and Penderyn Secondary School, which no longer exists. Her school achievements did not evidently foretell her distinction as a research scientist, although her interests in biology were clear. For her higher education she attended the University of Wales Institute of Education in Cardiff, where she specialised in biological science and psychology. Post-graduate research in neuro-psychology provided the first opportunities for her to blossom as a student, and eventually leader, in studies of the ageing process in humans, specifically, Alzheimer's disease. This condition, which is not yet curable, affects about 37,000 people in Wales and about 700,000 in the UK.

In 1991 Julie joined the Schizophrenic Genetics Research Team at the Department of Psychological Medicine, at what was then the University of Wales College of Medicine; it is now part of Cardiff University. In this position she was able to continue the significant work done in this aspect of medicine by Welsh specialists over several years. In due time she became the Chief Scientific Adviser to Alzheimer’s Research U.K.

In 2001 the excellence of her studies resulted in her being appointed Professor of Neuropsychological Genetics. It is interesting to note how titles of departments and persons indicate the nature of this field of research, much of it funded by the Medical Research Council of the U.K., where she is head of the Neurodegeneration section of the Medical Research Council Centre on Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics and is a former Member of the Neurosciences and Mental Health Board. At the outset, as far back as the early 20th century, the generic term was psychology (with people like Freud, Jung and Ernest Jones from Gowerton, Swansea being prominent); then came neurology and neuropsychology. By now, the terminology includes neuropsychiatric genetics and genomics, biostatics and bio-informatics. These more recent terms represent refinements in brain surgery and studies, some of which derive from the hugely significant specifications of the human genome project in 2000. The effect of this is to enable researchers such as Julie to seek a genetic description of changes in the human brain. In 2009 she led a genome study involving some 16,000 sufferers, and scientists from several universities in the U.K. and elsewhere. One outcome of this was the discovery of two genes, in addition to the one already known, which were recognised as 'risk' genes, that is, the presence of which indicated a higher likelihood of an individual's exhibiting the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

The characteristics of this condition have long been known in our society, but the response was usually a quiescent one typified by expressions such as 'he is losing it' and even 'she is going a bit gaga'. Such behaviour was, and continues to be, very distressful to families, because of the starkness of the change of capability and personality of the affected individual. Julie's work is designed to ameliorate the worst features.

But the questions have to be asked – to what end and by what extent?

In September 2013 Julie took on a new challenge, namely, that of being the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Welsh Government. This is a three-year secondment, requiring three and a half days each week while continuing with her responsibility at Cardiff University, where she is Dean of Research at the School of Medicine, for one and a half days. In June 2014 she issued her first annual report, which can be read on the appropriate web site.

Neville Evans, September 2014

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

Image © Welsh Government, reproduced under Open Government Licence v2.0

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