skip to content

Department of Pharmacology


An Interview with Professor Laura Itzhaki


Professor Laura Itzhaki recently became our Head of Department in Pharmacology, continuing her hugely successful academic career. After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, Laura moved to the University of Cambridge, Department of Biochemistry for her PhD.

She has been a group leader in the Department of Chemistry, the MRC Cancer Cell Unit and lastly the Department of Pharmacology, all within the University of Cambridge. Laura has received numerous awards, including the Beit Memorial Fellowship in Medical Research, previously held by Fred Sanger and John Gurdon.

Who are you and what do you work on?

My name is Laura Itzhaki, Professor of Structural Pharmacology and Head of Department. My group uses protein engineering to interrogate cellular pathways and modulate them to treat disease.

What do you love about your job?

Spending the day thinking science and talking with my research group and with other colleagues. The lifelong friends I've made. Conferences are a highlight!

How/why did your research lead you to Cambridge?

I came to Cambridge to do a PhD in protein folding with Phil Evans, having done my final-year undergraduate project in that field. I then wanted to do a postdoc with Alan Fersht, having been inspired by protein engineering. I had everything I needed here in Cambridge, so there was no reason to leave.

Other than science what is most important for you in life?

My 3 boys – husband, Shafiur, and sons, Pavel and Zain.

Do you have any advice to early-career women scientists?

Aim high and be brave. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something.

Did you have to face any hurdles as a woman in science?

People telling me I can't to do something! I think this happens more to women than men. On a more serious note, two recent instances of hurdles spring to mind. The first occurred just after I returned from maternity leave shortly after my younger son was diagnosed with a very serious illness. Although my group had been very successful, I was told that we were no longer a good fit to the institute and therefore would be made redundant; it was assumed that I would take the redundancy money and leave science. My son is happy and healthy now, and thanks to the support of colleagues and an offer of a new home in Chemistry for my research group from a wonderful mentor (the late Chris Dobson) we survived. The second was recently being refused a place for my son at the University holiday club due to his special needs. I was instead offered a £500 loan towards childcare and it was proposed I work part-time and find someone to do my PI job during school holidays! Sadly, many have such stories, but these hurdles make us stronger and even more determined to succeed.

What/Who first sparked your interest in Science?

My parents are both scientists, so science has always been in my life - I'm very fortunate. My mum will be 90 soon. She is still totally focused on her research (into the link between HSV and Alzheimer’s).She was zooming off to conferences all around the world right up until the pandemic hit, and now in lockdown she ‘Zooms’ in to virtual conferences instead.

What and when was the last experiment you did in the lab?

I am embarrassed to admit it was 13 years ago! We had some experiments to do for a paper revision, and I was the only one who could use the instrument. I’m proud to say that my data completed the additional work needed, and the paper was accepted!

If you were to choose a laboratory superpower what would it be?

It would be the ability to see what the killer experiment for every project is

What are your weaknesses and strengths?

Weaknesses: Procrastination and a very sweet tooth.

Strengths: I am tenacious and resilient.

What female scientist do you most admire and why?

I am going to give the same answer as Dr Lesley MacVinish: all my female Pharmacology colleagues.

What are your aspirations for the future?

There is still not a level playing field, and the pandemic threatens to reverse some of the progress women have made over the last few decades. Now more than ever, we need to turn our attention to and promote the most under-represented groups: women from ethnic minorities. I’d like to help change things for the better.

How would you like to be remembered?

For being a good colleague and for the role I might have played, however small, in the success of all the wonderful and clever colleagues who have passed through my lab