Dr Alison Woollard explores the frontiers of developmental biology in the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

Dr Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford will present the demonstration packed, three-part series called Life Fantastic which will air on BBC Four this Christmas.

  • Dr Alison Woollard, 2013 presenter of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES
    Credit: Paul Wilkinson


Monday 5 August 2013, London UK. A developmental biologist from the University of Oxford is set to deliver the 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Dr Alison Woollard will present the demonstration packed, three-part series called Life Fantastic which will air on BBC Four this Christmas.

The University Lecturer in Genetics, who gained her PhD under Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, will uncover the remarkable transformation of a single cell to a complex organism and answer some of the most profound questions about life itself: where do we come from? Can we live forever?

Covering the fundamental science behind recent biological developments such as chimera embryos and using stem cells to potentially cure blindness, Alison will also explore the serious ethical questions that stem from these discoveries. In true Royal Institution style, the lectures will be packed full of engaging demonstrations, showing how genes work in the body and why evolution makes us and every other species on the planet different from each other.

Commenting on her appointment, Alison said: “I won a science prize when I was 12 that gave me the opportunity to attend the CHRISTMAS LECTURES. All these years later as a developmental biologist, it is truly an honour to be returning to present the 2013 series on Life Fantastic. I am looking forward to sharing my passion for this amazing topic and discussing some of the complex issues being thrown up by advances in bioscience with young people. After all, they will be the scientists, parents and citizens of tomorrow.”

Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution said: ‘The topic this year was really inspired by the great British achievements in cell and developmental biology over the past 15 years. I am especially pleased to have a woman presenting the series and absolutely delighted that we have discovered an exciting new talent in Alison. She has a wonderful way of bringing this microscopic topic alive for young people.’

Filmed in front of a live audience in the iconic theatre at the Royal Institution, the original science events for children were started by Michael Faraday in 1825 and have long been seen as a favourite British Christmas tradition. Since 1825, Lectures have been given by many distinguished scientists including Nobel Prize winners William and Lawrence Bragg, Sir David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Lord George Porter and Dame Nancy Rothwell. Alison will be the fifth woman to present the prestigious CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

Life Fantastic is commissioned by BBC Four and BBC Learning. Janice Hadlow, Controller of BBC Two and BBC Four said: 'As ever, we're delighted to have the Ri Lectures on the BBC this Christmas, and this year's subject - exploring the very mysteries of life - will I'm sure be a brilliant treat for our audiences both young and old’.

Tickets to the filming of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are available by ballot to Royal Institution Members and UK registered schools only. For information on becoming a Member and getting tickets to the once in a lifetime show, visit www.rigb.org.

The 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES are supported by the Wellcome Trust. Extracts from the lectures will be made available by BBC Learning for use in the classrooms.


More information

For more details and interviews contact:

Hayley Burwell

The Royal Institution


020 7670 2991

Notes to Editors


The CHRISTMAS LECTURES are the Royal Institution’s biggest and most famous, demonstration-based science events for young people. They are broadcast on UK television every Christmas and have formed part of the festive tradition for generations – often being compared to the Queen’s Christmas message and the carols from Kings.

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have been inspiring children and adults alike since 1825. The Lectures were initiated by Michael Faraday at a time when organised education for young people was scarce. He presented 19 series himself, establishing an exciting new way of presenting science to young people.

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have continued annually since the 1825 series, stopping only during World War II. Many world-famous scientists have given the Lectures including Nobel Prize winners William and Lawrence Bragg, Sir David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Lord George Porter and Dame Nancy Rothwell.

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have been broadcast on television since 1966, first on the BBC and then on Channel Five, Channel Four and more4. In 2010, the Lectures returned to BBC Four and in 2011 the combined broadcast reached over 4 million viewers.

The 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES are produced by Windfall Films for BBC Four.

2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES: Life Fantastic

Life is the greatest show on Earth from the lowliest worm to the mightiest mammal. Yet from the moment of conception, to the formation of limbs, to the development of brains there’s something that all living things depend on: cells. Cells grow, multiply, change, move, communicate and ultimately die. They are the very essence of life, but how do they work together to form it? Gradually we are beginning to unravel their secrets. Life is fantastic and full of questions, but as we reveal the answers more questions emerge.

The 2013 CHRISTMAS LECTURES presented by Dr Alison Woollard from the University of Oxford, will explore the frontiers of developmental biology and uncover the remarkable transformation of a single cell into a complex organism. What do these mechanisms tell us about the relationships between all creatures on Earth? And can we harness this knowledge to improve or even extend our own lives?

Lecture 1: Where do I come from?

Filming Date: Saturday 14 December 2013

Your life stems from a single cell. Yet within the trillion of cells that make up your body lies a fundamental conundrum. Each cell contains identical DNA, yet muscle cells are very different from skin cells; blood cells are very different from brain cells. How does each of your cells ‘know’ exactly what to do? And when? And where? How do your heart cells start beating? How can your eye cells help you see the world around you? Can we use our understanding of how stem cells transform into specialised cells to build new body parts? What can we learn from animals that can regenerate their limbs? And what are the implications of tinkering with the fabric of life?

Lecture 2: Am I a mutant?

Filming Date: Tuesday 17 December 2013

Yes. But so am I. And so is the mouse that we share 99% of our genes with. As our DNA replicates, mutations arise. Sometimes they can be catastrophic, but sometimes they confer a huge advantage. Falcons have eyes that allow them to see for miles, but ants are virtually blind. How come? How are developmental processes altered over evolutionary time to produce novel structures and, ultimately, new species? The history of life revolves around survival of the fittest ‘mutant’. As we understand more about mutations it could help us devise new treatments for genetic conditions. But are we prepared to genetically engineer humans?

Lecture 3: Could I live forever?

Filming Date: Thursday 19 December 2013

Every living thing – humans, animals, plants or a single cell – eventually dies, but why? How do cells know when to die? What controls the ageing process and could we ever halt it? Developmental biology and genetics give us new insights into how cells work and what happens when genes switch on and off. Can we use this knowledge to improve or even extend life? And what are the ethical issues if we do? Would you really want to live forever?

About Dr Alison Woollard

Alison Woollard is a University Lecturer in Genetics in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford working on the developmental genetics of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans.  She is also a Fellow and Tutor in Biochemistry at Hertford College, Oxford.  Alison was educated at the Universities of London and Oxford, achieving a first degree in Biological Sciences in 1991 and a PhD in 1995.  Her current work concerns molecular mechanisms of cell fate determination during C. elegans development, trying to unpick the complex mechanisms by which cells become different from one another as an organism develops from egg to adult.  She also has a developing interest in the biology of ageing. 

Alison’s current research interests stem from a career-long enthusiasm for using model organisms to understand biological problems; the fact that all organisms share so many similarities at the genetic level means that work on the tiny roundworm C.elegans (and of course many other well-established model organisms such as yeast, fruitflies and zebrafish) can be applied to much more complex organisms, including humans. Work on model organisms remains at the forefront of biomedical research today and has illuminated a myriad of biological problems, from learning more about the genetics of behaviour to understanding the development of cancer.

She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children (10 and 6).