Oxford researcher scoops top neutron prize for ISIS research

Willis prize winner 2012 Willis prize winner 2012

Sylvia McLain and her prize

Dr Sylvia McLain of the University of Oxford has been awarded the prestigious B.T.M. Willis Prize for Neutron Scattering in recognition of her studies of a wide range of biological molecules and their interactions at the atomic and molecular level in the presence of water.
Her research is focused on understanding the interactions between molecules in cell membranes, the gate-keepers of life. Cell membranes are everywhere and are essential to sustain life. Cell membranes control the ‘molecular traffic’ in and out of the cell and play an important role in controlling disease and nutritional balance in different parts of the body.

The B.T.M. Willis prize is awarded annually by the Neutron Scattering Group of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry for outstanding contributions to neutron scattering science.

The majority of Dr McLain’s work uses the ISIS neutron source, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s world leading research centre at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford.

“As an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellow in Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, I am using neutron techniques to investigate biological problems such as protein folding and the formation of cellular membranes in solution. I am very honoured to win this prize as neutrons have played a fundamental role in my core research. It would not have been possible without the unique techniques and the support of the many excellent, experienced people I have collaborated with at ISIS,” said Dr McLain on her achievement.

“We were impressed with Sylvia’s research which is of wide interest and importance to academic research and several medical industries including pharmaceuticals,” said Dr Ali Zarbakhsh, Chair of the IOP/RSC Neutron Scattering Group. “Sylvia has expanded the level of structural details we can obtain using neutron scattering techniques and advanced the complexity of the systems we can study”.

Dr McLain holds a 5-year £1.3 million EPSRC research grant at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford. Her group uses a combination of neutron scattering, nuclear magnetic resonance and computer modelling techniques to discover how interactions at cell membranes take place. Understanding the structure of membranes is also needed to understand the regulation of cell activity. The results of the study will aid descriptions of many of the things that membranes do, such as signal transduction – which is important in passing messages between brain cells and the body via molecules called neurotransmitters, the passage of drugs into cells and the effect of external influences on cells from toxins and antimicrobial agents.

More information on the work of Sylvia McLain and her research group can be found on the University of Oxford Biochemisty web pages

Fore more about using neutrons to study biological molecules and processes visit our Neutron Research pages.