University Lecturer, 1993-97
Professor Helen Skaer MA, PhD joined the Department of Human Anatomy in late 1993 as University Lecturer. She was the first to be recruited for a new lectureship funded by St Hilda’s College, who only appointed women at the time. She ran the final year developmental biology course for undergraduate medical students, and also taught Cell Biology, Physiology, Zoology, Histology and Anatomy. Her background was insect biology as part of the Agricultural Research Council Unit at Cambridge University, so classical Anatomy was a completely new subject area – “Oxford provided a total immersion teaching experience; writing lectures on many subjects I knew very little about” – but she found the small anatomy department of 13 members, including Kate Storey, Richard Boyd, Jeremy Taylor, Gillian Morriss-Kay, Margaret Matthews, John Morris and Head of Department Ray Guillery, very supportive and welcoming.
Professor Skaer soon secured Wellcome Trust funding and set up a research group, having started her independent research career a few years earlier with Wellcome Trust grants (1991-4). She was primarily interested in how cells organise themselves to make an organ during embryogenesis, focusing on the renal system in the fruit fly. She had previously observed that the size of the fly kidney is regulated by a very specific lineage of cells – the first time these cells had been recognised as special - in “Cell division in the development of the Malpighian tubules of Drosophila melanogaster is regulated by single, specialised cells” (Nature, 342, 1989). While in Oxford, she followed up on this discovery to ascertain how these cells were differentiated from their siblings, and the nature of the signals they secrete to regulate cell proliferation.
In 1997, Professor Skaer left Oxford to become Senior Lecturer at the newly founded Developmental Genetics Research Centre in Sheffield, and was promoted to Professor in 2000. In 2001, she returned to Cambridge, first as a Lecturer, then a Reader, and finally Professor of Developmental Biology, retiring in 2015. In 2002, she delivered the prestigious Joan Mott Prize Lecture at The Physiological Society Annual Conference in Oxford.
Professor Skaer’s work in Oxford fed into her Sheffield and Cambridge research, leading to a series of papers concerned with morphogenesis of the renal tubules of the fly. The Skaer group found the specialised cells that regulate kidney size, also determine the development of its shape, influencing tubule elongation as well as the 3-dimensional organisation of the tubules in the body cavity. Notable papers include Bunt et al (Developmental Cell, volume 19, 2010), Weavers et al (Developmental Cell, volume 27, 2013) and Saxena et all (Plos Biology, volume 12, 2014). In 2009, Professor Skaer and her team identified interesting parallels between a separate group of renal cells in the fly and cells that filter urine in the mammalian kidney called podocytes. Their findings had important evolutionary implications as well as physiological and biological insights. They described these podocyte-like cells in the fly in a landmark paper entitled “The insect nephrocyte is a podocyte-like cell with a filtration slit diaphragm” (Nature, volume 457).
As well as the excitement of discovery, Professor Skaer considers the colleagues and students she has worked with to be among her career highlights, citing the “affectionate ribbing” of a mysterious question appearing on a student teaching questionnaire one term at Oxford, where she scored 100% for her ‘scariness factor’ which turned out to be a play on her name. She has enjoyed mentoring and is gratified that her students have taken off in a wide range of different directions. Her mentees have gone on to university lectureships, Henry Dale fellowships, managing a biotech company, scientific journalism, running successful websites and university administration.
View University of Cambridge Department of Zoology Profile (includes "Eureka Moments: Professor Helen Skaer" video)