Alumni in Focus - Professor Barbara Demeneix

Barbara first worked as an assistant professor in the University of Strasbourg and since 1990 has been running her own lab in the Natural History Museum in Paris, becoming only the second woman in 300 years to be appointed to a full professorship there (in 1995) and the first female head of department in 2000. Her research focuses on three aspects of evolution of thyroid hormone.

Losing our MindsProfessor Barbara Demeneix (nee Jenkins) attained a joint honours degree in Botany and Zoology in 1970.

On leaving Swansea Barbara worked in East Africa (Malawi) and then travelled and studied across the world - Canada (PhD), North Africa, France (DSc), Germany - before settling in France.

Barbara first worked as an assistant professor in the University of Strasbourg and since 1990 has been running her own lab in the Natural History Museum in Paris, becoming only the second woman in 300 years to be appointed to a full professorship there (in 1995) and the first female head of department in 2000. Her research focuses on three aspects of evolution of thyroid hormone.

Alumni Relations Manager, Sally Thurlow, recently caught up with Barbara to hear about her career since leaving Swansea and also about her recent publication.

 

 

 

ST: Why did you choose to study at Swansea University?

BD: It was a choice between Manchester and Swansea: Manchester had made me an unconditional offer (quite something in those days) and Swansea had some requirements. But when I went to Manchester it rained incessantly and when I visited Swansea the sun was shining, making the campus and the sea look quite brilliant. Coming from Welsh parentage sealed the decision. The fact that in the first month at Swansea it rained incessantly didn't change my initial impression of a great place to be studying!

ST: How has Swansea University and the course you studied helped you with your chosen career path?

BD: Brilliant professors who made you think right from the first tutorials and never allowed you to take anything for granted. Making us find - and try to answer - the right question. 

 I kept the exam papers from the finals, then went back to look at them a few years ago and found that there were some ideas I'm still working on today.

ST: Can you tell us a little bit more about your role at the University of Strasbourg and the Natural History Museum, Paris?

BD: I was appointed Assistant Professor in Strasbourg University in 1980, teaching physiology and Endocrinology, joining a research team doing electrophysiology . An ESF foundation fellowship allowed me to go to the Molecular Neurobiology Lab in Cambridge in 1986 and I learned a lot of molecular biology. This experience led me into gene transfer and ways of looking at gene transcription in live animals. In the Natural History Museum in Paris I founded a lab in 1990 (a dream come true!) and set about trying to understand evolution of thyroid hormone signalling.  Research into how thyroid hormone governs development of mammalian brains and amphibian metamorphosis led me into endocrine disruption.

The Natural History Museum has been a research and teaching institution for over 300 years - Bequerel discovered radioactivity there and, working with the Curies the other side of the road the first theory of evolution was elaborated by Lamarck. I hold a professorship in the Comparative Physiology Laboratory (founded by Claude Bernard the father of experimental medicine in the 1860s) in the lab I now run.

ST: What advice would you give to current students who are interested in a career in research?

BD: That’s a difficult question!  I was one of the recipients of the Nature awards for mentorship for France in 2011, so I give a lot of advice and get invited to give talks on the subject (I am presenting at the Karolinska Institute in November). The main thing to note is to think well ahead of where you want to go and be ready to take up the unexpected - but think about options carefully. And focus! 

I set up a company Watchfrog (www.watchfrog.fr/) to market screening technologies for endocrine disruption. The company currently employs about 15 people of which six or seven have PhDs. This was the main reason I was awarded the CNRS medal de l'innovation this year.

Barbara was made Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 2004 and again this year Officier de la Légion d'honneur for services to French science.

She is now an internationally recognised expert on thyroid function and endocrine disruption and author of more than 140 scientific publications, patents and book chapters. Barbara has recently published her first single author book, Losing our Minds, which arose from work on endocrine disruption.

In this book, Barbara makes the case that thyroid hormone signalling bridges the environment and gene programmes needed for brain development – and that environmental chemicals that disrupt normal thyroid function pose significant risks to the inherited intelligence and mental health of future generations.

The first chapter provides an historical overview of documented cases in which environmental pollution has caused IQ loss across the populations. The following chapters explain the physiology of thyroid hormone action, the importance of iodine and selenium for thyroid hormone signalling and brain development, and why thyroid hormone is such a sensitive target for environmental pollution. The final chapters discuss the role of gene-environment interactions in neuro-developmental disorders and address what can and must be done by individuals, associations and decision-makers to staunch these epidemics.

Professor Barbara Demeneix Losing our Minds by Barbara Demeneix has been published by Oxford University Press.