Lab-designed love

Published on 14 July 2023

A 'smelly old chemistry lab' might seem an unpromising location for romance, but it was in such a place that Professor Sir Philip Cohen met his future wife, Tricia. The couple would go on to develop what was an underappreciated field of research.

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Tricia and Philip met at University College London in 1965. After marrying, the couple worked as postdocs at the University of Washington before returning to the UK to take up positions at Dundee in 1971. Tricia would go on to become Head of Molecular Biology at the Medical Research Council Protein Phosphorylation Unit (MRC-PPU) and was awarded an Honorary Professorship in 2001. She published more than 120 papers on protein phosphatases, which she was the first person to clone. Sadly, Tricia died in August 2020 after battling lymphoma for two-and-a-half years.

The Tricia Cohen Memorial Trust was constituted to fund biomedical research in her memory. The Trust has so far raised around £300,000 from more than 80 donors worldwide. When its £500,000 target is reached it will fund six PhD studentships to run consecutively from 2022 until what would have been Tricia’s 100th birthday in 2044.

“Tricia was passionate about helping young scientists to make their mark in the world,” said Philip, Founding Director of the MRC-PPU and one of the UK’s most distinguished biochemists. “I can’t think of anything she would have enjoyed more than Pritha coming here to start her research career. We are delighted to welcome her, but it is tinged with sadness that Tricia is not here to see this for herself.”

Pritha Dasgupta (25) was awarded the inaugural Tricia Cohen Prize Studentship ahead of more than 100 applicants from around the world after impressing the Trust’s Scientific Advisory Board with her academic aptitude and clear sense of purpose.

“I feel very privileged and grateful to have been chosen from such a wide field,” said Pritha. “It was intimidating to be interviewed by such successful scientists, but they all gave me very constructive feedback. Tricia is known for her contribution to biochemical research, and I feel inspired by her story and by the work she did. After finishing my PhD I dream of ultimately becoming an independent investigator using what I learn in Dundee.”

“Tricia was passionate about helping young scientists to make their mark in the world.”

Professor Sir Philip Cohen Founding Director of the MRC-PPU

Tricia crouched down wearing a hat and binoculars net to a stone formation

Scientific stars

In addition to Philip and the other internationally acclaimed scientists at Dundee, Pritha can also draw inspiration from those who have pledged their support for the Trust. In addition to Tricia’s colleagues, family and friends, many of her former PhD students and postdocs have donated to the fund in recognition of the part she played in shaping their careers. The list of donors also includes two Nobel Laureates – the late Edmond Fischer, Philip’s former mentor in the USA, and Joseph Goldstein, who worked alongside Tricia in the same lab when they were both postdocs in Seattle more than 50 years ago.

Philip explained, “Many of our former students and postdocs have gone on to do great things in their professional lives and that is why they have been able to make such generous donations. They also wanted to recognise the role that Tricia played in their success.

“When we started working in protein phosphorylation, the idea that it would ever lead to anything of medical significance never crossed our minds. For 25 years, no pharmaceutical company had the slightest interest in anything we were doing but, over the past couple of decades, more than 75 drugs have been developed. Amazingly, they became the pharmaceutical industry’s most popular class of drug target and have transformed the clinical care of multiple cancers. Sales of kinase-inhibiting drugs worldwide are approaching £100 billion a year.

“I have no doubt that the researchers who benefit will go on to achieve great things and have a positive impact on the world.”

Student wearing a lab coat working in a laboratory

Make a gift to the University’s Tricia Cohen Memorial Fund and support the Tricia Cohen Prize Studentships.

Story category Alumni