Stephen Goodwin

Professor of Neurogenetics, Wellcome Investigator


Born in Banbridge, Northern Ireland, Stephen Goodwin grew up in Belfast and attended Methodist College Belfast grammar school. He studied genetics as an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow and researched Drosophila learning and memory for his Ph.D. After a postdoctoral stint at Brandeis University, he spent 10 years leading a research group at the University of Glasgow before moving to Oxford in 2009.

How did you get into biology, and how did you come to be working in this area?

My father was a mechanical engineer by training but an enthusiastic biologist, and in the late 70s he studied for an Open University degree in biology. He was a believer in broadening your mind in a way that isn’t connected to your working life and getting a sense of achieving something new and amazing. He adored the way different disciplines could cross-pollinate new and exciting ideas, and preached this doctrine throughout his life. I think I got my initial curiosity for working things out from my father — he spent much of his career involved in design engineering. He was always amazed by evolutionary design in the natural world—this resonated with his own views on incremental design in engineering. At school I actually had an aptitude for languages, biology and art; I really disliked mathematics and physics. I started University with no clear view of my future, but fortunately I fell in love with my genetics course from my second year onwards. I have very fond memories of listening to one of my lecturers, Richard Wilson, wax lyrical about a fly mutant called fruity (now known as fruitless). After University I started a PhD working with yeast cell-cycle mutants, but after six months I packed it in. I didn’t realise then but I needed to work on something with legs and a body. An accidental phone call with one of my lecturers in Glasgow, Kim Kaiser, and I found myself working on fruit fly learning and memory in his lab. You can see where this is going: in fly learning and memory, all roads lead to the godfather of neurogenetics Seymour Benzer, and Benzer guided me to one of his F1 progeny, Jeff Hall, and ultimately courtship behaviour. The rest, as they say, is history, or rather, neurogenetics.

What are your research questions?

We are studying how the fundamental properties of ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ are encoded in the circuitry and chemistry of the brain and how these internal states combine with sensory stimuli to elicit sex-specific behaviours. We use Drosophila courtship behaviour to study how sex-specific neural circuitry and behaviours are established during development by the action of complex networks of genes. Our studies focus on two pivotal transcription factors of the sex-determination hierarchy, fruitless (fru) and doublesex (dsx) that act together to specify and configure both the anatomy and physiology of sex-specific neural circuitry.

Why are these research questions important?

Understanding how the central nervous system translates biologically relevant stimuli into behaviour is one of biology’s biggest mysteries. Courtship behaviour in Drosophila has proven to be an outstanding model for understanding this complex problem.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Most of my life I have been terrible about asking for advice, and like many people rarely take it. Nonetheless, four pieces of sagely advice stand out for me, and I have tried to live by these ‘truths’.

‘Truth’ number 1: during my aimless teenage years I had been dithering between a career in law or science (in reality I wanted to be David Bowie). My solicitous grandfather, Fred Haugh, told me: “Stephen, my lad, this is a very simple dilemma, choose science as it’s a ticket to ride, you will have the opportunity to work in different countries, and meet people from interesting cultures; law will keep you stuck at home”. ‘Truth’ number 2: on leaving Jeff Hall’s lab, it was traditional for the lab to throw a big party for the leaver. This involved a lot of booze, greasy food, and gift giving (a wonderful combination). The lab gave me a Red Sox baseball jersey with my name emblazoned on the back, and a box set of Frank Sinatra rare recordings. I was really surprised when Jeff handed me a CD, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”. I was never a big fan of punk music (The Clash being the exception). “This should be your mantra, live by it and don’t forget it”, Jeff pronounced. Later the penny dropped (it always drops slowly for me): what Jeff was telling me was don’t worry about the unimportant stuff; just worry about getting the science right. ‘Truth’ number 3: did I mention that my wife is the real brains of our operation? She gets me to do things that I don’t like doing. ‘Truth’ number 4: finally, notwithstanding the influence that Kim and Jeff had on me as a scientist, I believe that your peers are very influential. Being intrinsically lazy I have always liked to surround myself with bright people, I think it ups your game.

Which question about your work annoys you the most — and why?

Is there a human gene for that?” Do I have to say why? Well, the fly has already taught us a great deal about the molecular structure of our nervous system and now it will teach us how this structure functions. Because of the vast array of genetic tools available for the fly, and its rich behavioral repertoire, we can identify the cellular components of neural circuits, map function in these circuits and define causal relationships between neural activity and behaviour.

How has the field of Drosophila behavioural genetics changed since you were a PhD student?

When I started my PhD, only the freaks and geeks (myself included) were doing fly behavioural genetics. At that time, neurodevelopmental biology would dwarf the other sessions at meetings; the behavioural talks would be scheduled for the last day, when everyone was either too hungover to concentrate, or checking out to make their flight home. Fast-forward 20 years and things have changed dramatically. The behavioural genetics field has worked extremely hard to understand the organisation and function of the brain, and the challenge now is to understand exactly how the brain’s neural circuits carry out the information processing that directly underlies behaviour. At fly meetings, neural circuits and behaviour are now de rigueur. This change in fashion has led inevitably to increased competition. No one denies that competition is a good thing, but it also leads to an atmosphere of ‘fear and loathing’. The field is no longer a ‘petulant adolescent’, it has lost some of its immaturity, impulsiveness and sensitivity, it’s getting harder to have the time to be curious about something, work it up, and rejoice in the haphazard and explorative nature of it. As scientists we are privileged and fortunate to be working in this field, it’s a gift, and with this comes responsibility, not entitlement. We need to set an example and be better role models for the next generation of fly researchers.

So which do you prefer, scientific ‘hero’ or ‘anti-hero’?

I have always fallen for the scientific anti-hero. Apart from their obvious scientific achievements, they are often loners, misfits, mavericks in their thinking and behavior. As in all good movies, you need a scientific anti-hero to serve as a counter for the too good to be true super-hero protagonist. Integrity, honesty, and the ability to say what needs to be said, even if it clears the room, are all hallmarks of my scientific anti-hero, Jeff C. Hall.

Visit the Goodwin research group page