An interview with Professor Michael Duchen

Professor Michael Duchen, a Professor of Physiology in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at UCL, shares with us about his life and career experiences as a scientist.

Author & Artist: Kellerine Quah
Editor: Elly Chaw

Professor Michael Duchen is a Professor of Physiology in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at UCL. His current research interests cover a wide range of issues in mitochondrial biology and cellular signalling. 

Tracing back his interests in experimental biology, Prof. Duchen recalled his childhood memories of visiting his father’s laboratory, where the laboratory technician would show him the workings of histological sections and staining on the microscope whilst awaiting the arrival of surgical specimens. Later, he studied Medicine at the University of Oxford and at St George’s Medical School, University of London. Prior to specialisation, he worked in neurology for six months as part of clinical rotations, during which he was inspired to return to experimental research.

He recounted: “Neurology was fascinating but deeply frustrating because we saw patient after patient, with dreadful, debilitating diseases, for whom we could do nothing. And for all of these patients, we could make a diagnosis, and then there was no effective treatment… It seemed obvious that the only way we’re going to advance is to understand basic science better. At the time, I had the option to go back to clinical medicine if I wanted to. But by the time I’d been [at UCL] for about a year, I didn’t really think about it anymore – I was enjoying the basic science too much. I found it fascinating and it’s gone on being fascinating ever since.”

Prof. Duchen described his career as  atypical;  while students are encouraged to gather various experiences from different laboratories to learn from different experts and to demonstrate research independence, Prof. Duchen has remained at UCL since his PhD, over thirty years ago. While he acknowledged that his career path is not one that is generally recommended, he shared that family commitments and research opportunities led him to remain in the same laboratory. 

“I can’t think of any major hurdles I’ve had to jump… I’ve been lucky. I think scientific careers now have changed, so it is more competitive and more difficult… I always worry about students who seem to be doing things because they ought to… I think the guiding principle is, if you have a [scientific] problem that’s really, really interesting – and you think it’s important – it’s likely to develop well, and you’re likely to go far.” 

Entering the field of mitochondrial biology was mostly by chance, he recalls. In the late 1980s, attempting to understand mitochondrial contributions to cell physiology was uncharted territory. At the time, he studied mitochondria out of curiosity. Over the decades, he has witnessed the growth of mitochondrial biology in recognition and relevance.

“It’s been a very exciting journey. I’ve watched the field in my lifetime go from being really embryonic to a field that I think now, is mature enough, that we can start seriously thinking about mitochondria as potential therapeutic targets in human disease… And I rather like the sense of having almost squared the circle, so going back to where I started – the frustrations in neurology, and now thinking that there are some potential outcomes of all this work over thirty years that might feed back into clinical medicine and lead to new therapeutic strategies in otherwise intractable diseases. I think if we can channel back what we’ve learnt into clinical medicine, that would be wonderful. I’d love to see that.”

As a graduate tutor, an editor of several journals, and a father of four children, Prof. Duchen certainly did not dismiss the difficulties of time management. His advice is to systematically work through each task. He emphasised that it was important to establish one’s priorities – in his case, not being an over-perfectionist, whilst not compromising quality.

“For me, one of the most important aspects of our work is an absolute confidence in the quality and integrity of our experimental work. I am not interested in a quick opportunity to add another paper to our publications list without being sure that the work is done as well as it can be.”

Still, he felt that not placing one’s self-worth solely on scientific output was important. “It becomes increasingly hard to admit that one might have been wrong,” he shared. “Having a range of interests and not being totally dependent on my scientific work for a sense of self-esteem is extremely important to me.”

From cooking to music, gardening, and birdwatching, Prof. Duchen shared that these interests were important in keeping the mind lively and active. Yet, the most important thing to him in life? 

“My children,” he candidly shared without hesitation, “they matter more to me than anything else.”

We would like to thank Professor Duchen for his generosity in giving his time and in sharing his life experiences with us.

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