Evolution of UK Clock Club: a personal view
Charalambos (Bambos) P Kyriacou
CPK and Alex, 1983
When Andrew Millar asked me to write something on the history of clock club it was, in effect, a veiled dig at my age. I believe that in the field of non-retired (but should have retired?) biological timing researchers in the UK, I am the third oldest, with Andrew Louden and Clive Coen both having a couple of years on me. Although initially somewhat reluctant (who in their right mind would want to take on extra work), I cannot say ‘no’ to Andrew M – we’ve been friends for far too long so I started reminiscing about the early days.
For those of you who don’t know me (and why should you?), I spent three years as a postdoc in Jeff Hall’s lab at Brandeis (1978-1981), where I started a little side project on Ron Konopka’s clock mutants in Drosophila. This was soon to become the main focus of my postdoctoral days and I published an initial paper on my findings with Jeff in 1980 in PNAS. I never planned to get into the clocks business so was not a classically trained clockie (a la Pittendrigh/Aschoff). I returned to the UK in March 1981 with a 5-year Advanced Fellowship and project grant from the SRC (Science Research Council, forerunner of BBSRC). I took it to my former department of Psychology, in Edinburgh, where I had previously spent 18 months as a Demonstrator in 1976 to early 1978, teaching as well as writing up my PhD before I moved to Brandeis. I resettled back to Edinburgh academic life in those early '80s, and from 1982-1986, I looked after my young son, Alex, while my wife was away studying for her postgraduate degree, so travel to meetings for me was rather difficult and work had to be tailored around my offspring. Even so, I offered a final year honours course on circadian rhythms and after one of my lectures, a rather charming undergraduate came to talk to me. His name was Hugh Piggins and he seemed quite taken with the subject.
Brian Follett in the 1970s
Apart from young Hugh, I barely knew anyone interested in clocks in the UK except David Saunders, who was in the Zoology department in Edinburgh, on the other side of the city to Psychology. We had talked about his work on the photoperiodicity of his rather large flies before I moved to the US. He was focusing his efforts on whether the circadian clock was relevant for insect photoperiodic diapause (hibernation). I also knew Brian Follett, who similarly researched avian photoperiodism because he had flown me over from the States to Bristol in 1980 and interviewed me for a Zoology lectureship (which I didn’t get, so I obviously impressed him).
Nevertheless, Brian got in touch once I was back in Scotland and kindly invited me to my first ever UK clock meeting, a small workshop in Birmingham in 1983. There, I remember meeting David Minors and Jim Waterhouse who worked on human rhythms in Manchester and this rather tall, surly young Yorkshireman called Michael Hastings (nothing’s changed) who was working with Joe Herbert in Cambridge. I moved to Leicester in 1984 and I have kept all my diaries from that date. I note that I managed to attend clock meetings in London in April 1987, another near Shrewsbury (why Shrewsbury?) in April 1990, an AFRC (Agricultural and Food Research Council) meeting run by Brian in Warwick in September 1990 plus another small London meeting in January 1994 at London Zoo organised by Andrew Loudon.
Clive Coen, early 1990s
I also gave a few seminars around the UK when I could get away, and recall one in the mid-late '80s at King's College when Clive Coen invited me down to London. He was involved in the London Neuroendocrine Club at that time, some of whose members were interested in biological rhythms. By the early to mid-1990s Clive was organising regular London-focused clock meetings with his mates, Iain Campbell and John Powell from the Institute of Psychiatry, plus Andrew Loudon, the latter based at London Zoo. These were held locally and were the direct forerunners of the ‘UK Clock Club’. Indeed the KCL/Psychiatry/Zoo crowd had suggested naming these gatherings as ‘Clockwork Club’, ‘Clock-Shop’ then ‘London/Cambridge Clock Club’ (reflecting Mick Hastings’ input) but finally settled on ‘Clock Club’ in 1994. These early one-day meetings of the 1980s and early-mid 90s were made possible by the enthusiasm and efforts of Brian Follett, the KCL/Psychiatry group and Andrew Loudon. They initiated the early development of the coordinated UK profile in chronobiology that was to punch way above its weight in the years to come.
Andrew Millar, 1996
The first national, titled ‘UK Clock Club’, held outside the home counties, according to my diary was in Cambridge on the 26th June 1996, organised by Mick Hastings. This was an afternoon-only meeting that ran from 2-6 pm with the keynote lecture from Andrew Millar, a young hotshot who had just returned from the USA to take up a fellowship at Warwick. The second meeting, held by me in Leicester on the 13th December of the same year followed the same pattern, afternoon only, allowing people to travel to the location and leave in good time to get home. Audiences were not huge, about 30-40 attendees, but they came from far-and-wide and were treated to lunch, beverages and cheese-and-wine paid from departmental slush funds or from a handful of companies that paid a small fee to display their chrono-relevant products. The template for the meetings evolved into having at least one or perhaps two meetings a year, starting a little earlier around 11 am to lunchtime and using them as a forum for PhD, postdocs and junior PIs to present their work. A ‘big-shot’ lecture by senior UK or non-UK clockie, who might be conveniently passing through, closed the meeting, followed by a reception and maybe a curry for those who could stay late.
CPK and not-so-surly Mick Hastings in 1995, just before launching the first two 'UK clock clubs' in 1996
In the 1990s, there were few centres for clock research so the meeting naturally cycled among a very small number of institutions. Apart from London, Cambridge and Leicester, Manchester came on board in 1997 (Andrew Loudon), then Guildford (1998, Debra Skene) and Imperial (1999, Russell Foster). These cities plus Edinburgh have each hosted the club on at least three separate occasions with Bristol, Warwick, Kent, Bath, Glasgow, Birmingham, Oxford, Glaxo-Smith Kline, Harwell, Aberdeen and York also chipping in. The attendance has grown so that most meetings now have 100-150 delegates and this has put more pressure on organisers who have to raise the money to host them. In this context, and in the late 1990s, Brian and I had attempted to squeeze some money from the Royal Society to fund these meetings, but to no avail. Nevertheless, with the goodwill of our commercial sponsors plus some financial flexibility from the host institutions, the meetings always seem to work. The baton is passed from organiser to organiser, in the old days, somewhat chaotically with a nod and a wink, but nowadays a little more transparently at a 5-minute ‘business session’ but there are no committees, presidents, secretaries, membership fees or linked journals. The meeting has a charming anarchy to it and simply serves as a regular networking opportunity for both junior and senior researchers to exchange ideas and covid viruses (re Oxford 2022).
I would like to thank several of my senior colleagues for refreshing my memory, particularly Clive Coen, as well as Andrew Loudon, Russell Foster, Mick Hastings, Hugh Piggins and Debra Skene, as well as more junior colleagues, Stuart Peirson and John O’Neill. John recalled a more recent episode where Mick and I performed the Nobel rap at the Leicester meeting in January 2018, something both Mick and I have tried to purge from our memory banks. John also writes ‘From the perspective of a young PhD student entering the field, for me, the great thing about UK Clock Club was its rather informal and very welcoming nature. The range and depth of talks was also a big attraction, compared with the non-stop structural and molecular biology (yawn) I was subjected to in Cambridge! Most talks were by students or post-docs, presenting data that was often hot off the press and frequently far from polished. It really felt more like a lab meeting in terms of its collegiality and constructive feedback, particularly because meetings were small and friendly enough that students felt able to go and chat with senior professors after a drink or three. I remember feeling very excited to talk with Carl Johnson and being treated like a real grown up scientist’.
I think that is a good place to end.
Charalambos (Bambos) P Kyriacou
Leicester, January 2023
An archive of meetings and organisers from 1992 will be made available on the BioClocks UK website soon.