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Short and Sweet: On Professor Anne Dell, Distinguished Forrest Visiting Fellow

13 May 2024

By Joseph Steinberg, Forrest Fellow, and Sean Li, Forrest Scholar (pictured below).

Anne Dell, Professor of Carbohydrate Biochemistry at Imperial College London, is not the type to sugar-coat things.

‘We don’t understand how you guys survive puberty,’ she remarks with a certain glee, flicking her wrist toward the men in the room. Her wry smile makes it clear that this bafflement is nothing personal: she’s speaking here as a glycobiologist, a leading expert on the sugars that coat cells in living organisms. Men surviving puberty is just another unexplained phenomenon that merits further examination.

‘The best way to do research is to have fun interpreting the data,’ she later quips, and this time the grin is conspiratorial. By then, we’re in the know. Dell has somehow persuaded her audience that mass spectrometers can be fun, that they have a funny side. In her account, colour-coded polymers rearrange themselves into lines or branch-like trees: she hangs sugars on them with a decorative ease, as if they were so many baubles. Certain colours recur. Even if you missed the clue, a vibrant floral shirt under Dell’s pale pink cardigan, it’s hard not to develop an inkling that she has a fondness for magenta.

Just over half a century ago, in 1972, Dell was among the first cohort of women to matriculate at King’s College, Cambridge, where she went on to complete her PhD under the supervision of Howard Morris. She recalls schlepping her suitcase across town only to arrive at the college well ahead of term, in June, with no-one having informed her that Cambridge’s academic year starts in October.

This wasn’t exactly common knowledge in pre-internet Perth, where Dell completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Western Australia, let alone the farm where she grew up, which lacked both electricity and running water. Her commute back then involved a six-mile cycle, a bus from Kalamunda, and another bus to campus. Dell did not attend school until she was eleven; at twenty-one, she found herself a long way from home.

The college’s porters were frosty, if not outright rude. No rooms had yet been prepared that were suitable for a woman. Her memory of this encounter quietly resembles that of Virginia Woolf, who recalled being shouted off the grass by a porter in the semi-fictional register of A Room of One’s Own some half-century prior.

Fortunately, King’s did eventually provide Dell with suitable lodgings. But she found time for another brush with the Bloomsbury set when she helped arrange the papers of the renowned novelist E. M. Forster, which had been donated to King’s just a few years prior.

Since then, Dell has generally preferred laboratories to archives.

Her research investigates the structure and function of glycans, which are sugar molecules linked together to form a larger molecule, normally with an intricate, tree-like structure. Canopies shade forest floors; branching glycans obscure the surface of a cell, even though glycans are much smaller than proteins, which in this analogy would be something like the soil below. Generally, glycan molecules are linked with proteins, serving as antennae that receive biochemical signals from other cells. The problem is that viruses can hijack these transmissions.

Coronaviruses largely do so via a spike protein that is covered with glycans of its own, which interact with the glycans on the host cell, facilitating the entry of viral genetic material. One application of Dell’s research into exactly how these glycans are structured, in short, is that this knowledge helps us develop new ways of combatting infectious diseases.

But glycans are tiny. Too small, even, to be spotted by a microscope. This is where Dell’s enthusiasm for mass spectrometry comes in. Part molecular hammer, part scale, mass spectrometers first ionise their sample then determine their mass, based on how they move in an electric or magnetic field. Then comes the effort to determine their structure: this is accomplished by using the same fields to accelerate ions into other gas molecules, breaking them into smaller ions, which can then have their mass measured in the same way.

At this stage Dell becomes a detective of sorts, reassembling the bodies of glycans at an invisible crime scene, limb by sugary molecular limb.

When you put it like that, interpreting data does start to sound fun.

Professor Anne Dell visited the Forrest Research Foundation as our inaugural Distinguished Forrest Visiting Fellow in April 2024. Her visit was supported by School of Molecular Sciences, University of Western Australia and the UK Friends of UWA. We would particularly like to thank David MacKinlay for his assistance.

(Professor Anne Dell pictured with Director of Forrest Research Foundation, Professor James Arvanitakis)