Professor Mark Mayer

Category: 1980s /  All Harkness Stories /  Health & Social Care /  Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths / 

Professor Mark Mayer (HF 1980-82) chose a Fellowship which allowed him to train in laboratories in the US that were using techniques in ion channel biophysics not widely available in the UK. Most importantly, the Fellowship gave him the freedom to choose the laboratories that hosted him and to move between labs as his experience grew. As a result, he acquired new skills, leading to a series of studies that he pursued for the rest of his career and to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Mark’s career focused on analysis of excitatory neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, initially using electrophysiological techniques, with which he discovered that NMDA receptors were calcium permeable ion channels, flux through which varied with membrane potential due to block by extracellular Magnesium. This mechanism forms a coincidence detector that acts as a gate triggering synaptic plasticity. Later he used X-ray diffraction and cryo-electron microscopy to study the structure of glutamate receptors, establishing mechanisms for subtype selective binding of ligands, allosteric modulation, and how desensitization occurs. This work furthers our understanding of a wide range of neurological disorders. Finding limited biomedical research funding opportunities in the UK on his return to London in 1982 led to Mark joining the brain drain and moving to the NIH.  Subsequent emergence of the Wellcome Trust changed this, but by then he felt it was too disruptive to return home. Today, the UK is a vibrant place for biomedical research, and Mark often visits for academic collaborations.