Professor Robin May appointed Gresham Professor of Physic

Professor Robin May

Gresham College, London’s oldest Higher Education Institution, is delighted to announce the appointment of Robin May as the next Professor of Physic at Gresham College. This Professorship covers Medicine and the Biological Sciences.

Robin is Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Birmingham and is currently serving as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency. He has spent most of his career studying host-pathogen interactions, with a particular interest in how some microbes are able to manipulate the human immune system to their own benefit.

He has a long-standing commitment to science communication and has won several prestigious awards, including Fellowship of the American Academy of Microbiology and the Colworth Medal.  

He succeeds Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who will continue to give a small number of lectures at Gresham in 2022-3 as an Emeritus Professor.

Professor May said: “At a time when higher education is increasingly driven by commercial factors, organisations like Gresham College have never been more important and so I am absolutely delighted to be taking up this post."

“Over the last two years, we all witnessed first-hand the enormous power that microbes have to change the world. But as well as causing terrible disease, microbes are also fundamental to the air we breathe, the food we eat and even the ground we stand on. In my lectures at Gresham, I will be exploring some of the amazing feats that microbes achieve and some of the surprising ways in which they affect our day to day life and shape our behaviour."

Professor May will continue the 425-year-old tradition of delivering free lectures aimed at the public within the City of London and beyond.

Dr Simon Thurley, Provost of Gresham College, said: “I am delighted to appoint Robin as Professor of Physic at Gresham College. This is one of our oldest and most prestigious Professorships, going for 425 years, and he will be an enthusiastic and brilliant addition to the College.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, CEO of Gresham College, said: “I am thrilled to welcome such a talented communicator to the team at Gresham. Robin is a worthy successor to Professor Chris Whitty and we look forward to his lecture series on the marvels of microbiology.”

In 2022-3, Professor May will be lecturing on the wonders of the microbial world.  In this series, All the World’s a Microbe, he will cover six main topics: 

1) The Microbial Basis of Life 
Single-celled microbes underpin all life on Earth, and even complex organisms like humans retain a surprising amount of their microbial heritage. Life began when free molecules became encapsulated in a lipid membrane and transformed into a self-replicating entity. Subsequently, multiple cells came together, forming a remarkable symbiosis that ultimately led to all complex, eukaryotic, cells and laid the foundations for multicellular life.  Understanding this microbial legacy has some surprising implications, such as explaining why some antibiotics have unwanted side effects.

2) Microbial Megastructures
Invisible microbes have created some of the largest structures on the planet. Mycorrhizal fungi form extraordinary subterranean networks that associate symbiotically with plant roots. Most land plants, including many human crops, need mycorrhizae for optimal growth, but recent research has shown they also play important roles in forest-wide communication and may even turn some trees into carnivores. More dramatically, microbial communities have created global landmarks ranging from the White Cliffs of Dover to the Great Barrier reef.

3) Microbial Master-Chemists
Microbial chemistry makes bread rise and cheese mature, and turns grapes into wine. Microbes help make engine fuel, life-saving antibiotics and nano-particle sunscreens. Without fungi and bacteria, the world would sink under its own waste within days, since only these microbes have the ability to degrade complex polymers such as the lignin in plants. Might we be able to harness the amazing power of microbial degradation to help remove the human-made plastic mountain, or clean up toxic waste sites?

4) Microbial Record-Breakers
Microbes hold astonishing speed records: the remarkable Thiovulum majus races along at 60 body lengths per second – the equivalent of Usain Bolt completing the 100m sprint in just over 0.8 seconds. Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 replicate so rapidly that a single infection can produce 100 bn virus particles within a couple of days. And some bacteria lie dormant for millions of years. This lecture looks at the biology behind these record-breakers, and what they can teach us about creating new materials.

5) How Microbes Manipulate Life
Every animal on the planet carries with it an astonishingly diverse microbial zoo – millions of invisible organisms that thrive on the skin and in the gut. They play an important role in health and disease and may also shape human emotions and behaviour. Viruses may stimulate aggression, parasites can trigger suicide and bacteria can block fear responses. The evidence for our interaction with microbes may even make us want to re-evaluate the concept of free-will.

6) A Microbial Future 
Microbes have existed on Earth for almost 4 billion years; 3x as long as multicellular organisms and 1000x longer than humans.  So what does the future hold? Will recent advances in genetic engineering enable us to create bacterial ‘drug-delivery’ machines or self-replicating microbial vaccines? What will the first human-created lifeform mean for our understanding of biology? Will humanity end with a ‘microbial bang’, or might microbes perhaps be the solution we need to spread our wings beyond this planet?