The Principal's Blog: Week Eight

croppedJohnBowersOur new Principal, John Bowers, shares more thoughts on the first few weeks of his time at the College.

Retirement dinner: 21 November

We held a grand dinner for Alan Bowman our illustrious and much missed former Principal. There were some 90 friends and family (i.e. the Brasenose family) in Hall. Sos Eltis, the Vice Principal, described this great classicist as “the man who used scanning technology to prove that Roman soldiers wore socks”. His brilliant portrait was revealed to general approval. He is now Vice President of the British Academy and still very busy.

Owen Lewis recognised: 23 November

I attended the University teaching awards at Rhodes House, presented by the Vice Chancellor Prof Andy Hamilton. Our Professor Owen Lewis won one for designing, establishing and teaching a new tropical biology course. This involves intensive working in Borneo. It is vital that we recognise great teaching.

Sir Mike Stratton in chapel: 27 November

On Friday of 7th week, Brasenose welcomed back our alumnus Sir Mike Stratton for the inaugural Principal’s Conversation. Sir Mike read Medicine at Brasenose, graduating in 1979. He is currently Director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Chief Executive Officer of the Wellcome Genome Campus. Interest in this event was so great that a special platform was erected in the Chapel – the only venue in College large enough to seat the 120-strong audience of academics, students, and staff.

Sir Mike provided an overview of human genome sequencing, from the project’s infancy during the 1980s to the first complete sequencing in 2003, and then more recent developments.  The initial sequencing had involved an international consortium of 30 research groups with a budget of over $3 billion. Thanks to technological advances, a human genome (a chemical compound called  organismdeoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA,  that contains the genetic instructions required to develop and direct the activities of every individual)  can now be sequenced in a mere 24-48 hours, at one-millionth of the original cost.

In one sense, geneticists are still scratching at the surface since there over 3.2 billion base pairs of chemical units to investigate, which make up the building blocks of DNA. In other senses, however, civilisation confronts immediate major ethical questions. DNA samples are readily obtainable from human embryos, even prior to birth, while it has been demonstrated that local genetic modifications can be carried out safely without risk to an organism as a whole. There are no longer insurmountable barriers to augmenting human existence or in eradicating certain types of cancer and other diseases.

Our personal genetic futures are also foreseeable. Humanity must decide who should have access to sequencing information and what should be permissible with this data. Questions, led by me and then taken up further by the audience, explored the future direction of scientific enquiry and its potential impact on society.

It was a great first event for the Principal’s Conversations series.

Cookery with the Tutors: 29 November

Claudia Roden, the renowned cookery writer, spoke to tutors about her research methods, her early life in Egypt, her work on Italy and Spain. The publication of her The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1968 is said to have revolutionized Western attitudes to the cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa. Simon Schama famously said of her: “Claudia Roden is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet, who just happens to communicate through ta’am – taste.”

She demonstrated all of those virtues in her talk. She gave a broad sweep of international cuisine and answered questions. She was a terrific guest.

Old Members and Bursaries:

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a ‘Jubilee Lunch’ for former Brasenose students who started their courses in 1956 or earlier. I was very pleased to see so many new faces. Being ‘the new boy’, I was heartened by their welcome. Those attending were the most senior in our community and I simply love hearing their take on Brasenose’s history.

Having met them, hearing their stories and seeing their impact on the College, it has become clear to me why we have an Alumni Office. Alumni have brought and continue to bring so much to the College – advising us, sitting on our committees, talking to our students, offering careers advice and making such significant donations (£2 million a year) that we are in a position to take their advice, improve our position and ensure we continue to mould the brightest minds. 

On a related note, I was recently asked to write an introduction to the College’s Donor Impact Report. It is a remarkable collection of stories from some of the one-in-four Brasenose undergraduates who receive financial assistance from the Brasenose community. One such undergraduate is Georgina – a medical student.

Georgina tells us how the bursary support provided by alumni have enabled her to participate more in aspects of College and University life. Although the collegiate system here at Oxford helps keep accommodation, food and travel costs low compared to some other universities, it is exceptionally valuable to have these extra funds to help students get the most out of their time here, especially as there’s little time for paid work during our intense eight week terms

I reflect that guests at the Jubilee Lunch, including myself, were lucky enough to have a free university education. It would be appalling if some of the brightest minds in society were put off applying to Oxford because of the perceived costs. Donations from alumni ensure that we do all that we can to break down these perceived barriers in the application process. From our excellent schools liaison programme and open days to bursaries and hardship grants, alumni help us achieve our goal to make Oxford accessible for everyone. Thank you to all those who already donate – Oxford changed the course of my life

College Heads:

We had had several meetings over the last few weeks for the heads of all the Colleges at the University, under the banner of the Conference of Colleges. One was followed by dinner with 38 Colleges and various Permanent Private Halls represented. It is astonishing to see how many different areas are covered by the Heads of College. They include the worlds of diplomacy, museums, the civil service, academia, and the media and of course several lawyers.

Seasons greetings:

I have been sending out hundreds of Christmas cards on behalf of the College and messages to those of other faiths (and none). Suzanne and I have also been distributing gifts amongst the many departments in College. We also held a Chanukah candle lighting in the Lodgings which we believe to have been a first. About forty people crowded into the Lodgings. Children helped me to light the candles for what was the second night of the eight day Festival.

We also held a drinks party to thank those who helped during Freshers Week. This is a major operation and Brasenose is I have found a very happy place. I hope all of you have a good break and an excellent new year. We leave on a College trip to Hong Kong and Malaysia, on which I will report in my next blog. In the meantime I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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