Britain's Tradition of Crystallography
Rodney Steel

The accommodation being offered by Durham University, in northern England, to its prospective new professor of crystallography was less than generous. Meagre would have been putting it politely. And Professor Judith Howard (right) was forthright in her comments.

Already an internationally know crystallographer following a successful research career at Bristol University, in southwest England, Professor Howard was developing revolutionary analytical technology with a programme of very advanced scientific investigation on which to deploy it.

Durham University was appropriately impressed by her plans. Accommodation schedules were hastily revised. Today, the university has a spacious and comprehensively equipped department of crystallography that is the envy of many visiting scientists from overseas.

Unequalled Sophistication
Professor Howard has up to 18 people working under her and she has developed an ultra-low temperature diffractometer for analysing the structure and properties of crystals that is virtually unequalled in its sophistication: fewer than six other laboratories anywhere in the world possess anything remotely comparable.

Her parents both pursued successful medical careers: her mother was a hospital matron, her father was a totally self-made man who eventually became a senior hospital administrator. She developed an early interest in physics that suggested her future might lie in this field but later she went to Bristol University to take a B.Se honours degree in chemistry. And it was at Bristol that she first became fascinated by crystals and crystallography.

One of her courses was on optical microscopy and she was enthralled by the images that her microscope revealed. "It was just fascinating," she recalls. "We did a lot of work with the microscope, looking at different forms and shapes and learning about symmetry."

Gaining a doctorate was the next obvious step and she had the great good fortune to receive an invitation to study at Oxford where she came under the tutelage of Dorothy Hodgkin, a pioneer British crystallographer who received a Nobel prize in 1964 for her work on the structure of the vitamin B12 molecule.

Role Model
Professor Hodgkin was to become effectively a role model for this talented young woman, who later in her career came to regard Dorothy Hodgkin as a professional colleague and, ultimately, a close personal friend until the Nobel laureate died in 1994.

Equipped with her newly won Oxford qualification and a similarly newly won husband (David Howard, whom she met as an undergraduate when he was a medical student), she returned to Bristol, this time as a research assistant.

The next 22 years were a period of steady progress in her chosen field, moving up successively to research fellow, senior research fellow, and ultimately: reader. She established a structural chemistry facility in the university's Inorganic Department and all the time gradually built up her experience and the scope of her research investigations.

Among the concepts that Professor Howard initiated at Bristol was an ultra-low temperature diffractometer. The possession of such an instrument had become essential if her pioneering studies of structure/property relationships were to progress.

Need To Know
Crystallography has come to play a large role in the development of modern applied science: for biologists working with proteins, technologists developing new materials, quality control specialists and metallurgists seeking to evolve alloys. In fact, for scientists in almost every significant research sector, there is a need to know precisely what it is they are working with and what it consists of.

Durham University saw in Judith Howard a scientist who could take their conservative old crystallography department and transform it into an innovative pacemaker. Judith Howard realised that at Durham she could fulfil her ambitious plans and justify the confidence that her mentor, Dorothy Hodgkin, had always had in the talented young student who had arrived at Oxford just a quarter of a century before. Five years after moving to Durham, professor Howard has turned the crystallography department into a major international research centre.

She receives visiting experts from all over the world, has had scientists from Russia, China, Argentina and Finland working at Durham under her supervision and is herself in great demand overseas as a lecturer: the United States and Canada are frequent destinations.

Professor Howard works regularly at the Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble and has been warmly welcomed as a distinguished visiting scientist at crystallography aporatorles in China, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Argentina.

There is an especially fruitful cooperative programme between her department at Durham and similar laboratories in India, whose scientists she holds in high esteem.

Daunting Schedule
Currently president of the prestigious British Crystallography Association, Judith Howard has a talent for organisation (and, importantly, fund raising) that extends beyond the running of her department.

She sits on a large number of scientific committees in the UK, maintains a daunting schedule of overseas visits to attend conferences and workshops and has a full teaching schedule at Durham, including PhD supervision.

Her research programme embraces not only work witn tne revolutionary ultra-low temperature diffractometer 1 but also charge density studies, the development of fast data collection and structure solution for chemical crystallograpny allu investigations into organic metals and thin films, sensitive materials for bio-sensors and a number of other concepts.

She claims to need only between four and six hours sleep a night and still maintains an interest in the arts, regularly visiting the theatre (especially to see ballet, which is still a major enthusiasm), collecting paintings and sculptures ana walking on the bleak but magnificent fells and dales around Durham.

Her husband is now a senior physician at a hospital in Swindon, in southern England and they take it in turns to commute the 500-mile round trip between Durham and Swindon for weeen visits. Clearly it is a relationship that has not only survived the conflicting demands of two separate careers, but even flourished in an atmosphere of mutual encouragement and support. Scientific commitment left no place for children in their busy lives but this is not something about which she expresses any regret.

Indeed, the aesthetic beauty of crystals that first excited her interest as an undergraduate and led to her enduring fascination with crystallography still clearly generates an intense enthusiasm with which nothing else could realistically compete.

"The whole subject is just beautiful," she asserts. "The crystals themselves are beautiful in colours and shapes. The diffraction patterns are fascinating. And then you have the molecular structure - especially with today's graphics, which almost look like works of art."

For more information contact:
Professor Judith Howard
Faculty of Science, Department of Chemistry, Durham University
South Road, Durham, United Kingdom, DH1 3LE.
Tel: +44 191 374 2000 | Fax: +44 191 374 3745 | E-mail: J.A.K.HOWARD@durham ac uk

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