About Life Sciences

Find out about the School of Life Sciences – one of the largest Schools in the University, both in terms of research activity and student and staff population.

A tree in blossum outside of the JMS Building on campus

Our aims and values

We strive to engage with real-world problems and produce impact in fields as varied as cancer biology, drug discovery, neuroscience and biodiversity.

Mission statement

Our mission statement is to enhance human health and environmental sustainability, through research, education and knowledge exchange.

Our research

Our world-class research and teaching seeks to understand and impart knowledge about the mechanisms that drive biological and chemical systems. We undertake multidisciplinary and multi-scale research, from molecules to ecosystems and these principles are reflected in our unique and inspirational teaching curriculum. Our research has recently achieved huge momentum in grant funding and critical mass. 

Find out more about our research and explore our research areas.

Explore our subject areas

Our teaching is strongly research-led and focused on developing the skills and employability needed by the next generation of scientists and innovators.

You can take courses in the following subject areas:

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

We are proud to support our staff, students and visitors through our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work. We work to ensure that all members of our community have equal access to opportunities, experiences and support that enables everyone to reach their full potential.

Discover our EDI work.

Our history

Life Sciences have played a major role in the research and teaching of the University of Sussex since 1961. The original School of Biological Sciences (BIOLS), founded by John Maynard Smith FRS, trained some of the world’s leading biologists and biomedical scientists, and was a beacon of innovation and creativity in its integrated approach to research and teaching. 

The current structure was formed in 2009 when Professor Laurence Pearl FRS was appointed as founding Head of the new School of Life Sciences. Professor Sarah Guthrie was appointed Head of School in September 2017, leading the School until August 2023. The School continues to develop under the leadership of Professor Michelle West, who has been appointed Interim Head of School since September 2023.

The scientists who have shaped the School

  • John Maynard Smith 

    Life Sciences started life as the School of Biological Sciences which was founded in 1965 by John Maynard Smith (usually called JMS).  Originally trained as an engineer (Cambridge), after the Second World War JMS took a BSc in Zoology at University College London where he became a lecturer shortly after graduating. 

    His main aims at Sussex were to break down divisions between traditional subjects (e.g. biochemistry, botany and zoology) and to create an informal atmosphere.  JMS argued that a diversity of viewpoints is a key aspect of a rich learning environment for both students and staff. This may help to explain how - despite having little training in Chemistry - JMS took to molecular biology so readily while at Sussex.

    JMS argued that research collaboration resembles sex: it requires both proximity and personal chemistry; partners who seem totally unsuitable to outsiders can be very successful.  He stressed the vital importance of a good central canteen in encouraging such liaisons. Many of his own collaborations were also developed while drinking Harveys Best Bitter at the Swan in Falmer.

    JMS served as Dean (Head of School) twice (1965-72; 1982-84) and was very active in teaching, even helping on ecology field classes.  In 1985, he retired from teaching and administration, but certainly not from research:  he continued working right up to his death on 19 April 2004 (122 years after Darwin to the day).

    Read John Maynard Smith's obituary.

  • Sir John Cornforth

    Professor Cornforth (affectionally known as Kappa to his friends) was born in Sydney, Australia in 1917. His childhood was spent in Sydney and in New South Wales. During his early years Kappa developed a hearing disorder which left him profoundly deaf over a period of 10 years. However he became very interested in chemistry and at the young age of 16 went to Sydney to start a career in organic chemistry which had been initiated at the tender age of 14 in a home laboratory.

    Kappa won an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to work at Oxford with Sir Robert Robertson. Two scholarships were awarded each year and the other was won by his wife to be, Rita. Both Kappa and Rita completed their work for doctorates at Oxford on steroid synthesis. In 1946 he joined the Medical Research Council, first at Hampstead and then at Mill Hill where he worked with Ellen Fawaz the wife to be of my former PhD supervisor.  

    Kappa worked at the National Institute for Medical Research with biological scientists and with George Popják and identified by means of radioactive tracers the arrangement of the acetic acid molecules in cholesterol. In 1962 Popják and Kappa joined the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology as co-directors under the direction of Lord Rothschild.  

    Kappa joined the University of Sussex in 1975 to take up the position of Royal Society Research Professor where his work attracted major prizes culminating in the Nobel Prize in 1975. He continued to carry out research at the University of Sussex sharing a laboratory with Professor Jim Hanson and latterly with Professor Phil Parsons.  Kappa worked in the laboratory until he was almost 90 years old amongst young postgraduates who were all very excited by his presence in the laboratory.

    Kappa died on the 8th of December 2013 - his wife Rita died in 2012.

    Read SIr John Cornforth's obituary written by his colleague Douglas Young.

  • Harry Kroto

    While working at the University of Sussex in 1985, Sir Harry Kroto teamed up with collaborators at Rice University, USA, to investigate carbon chains.

    Sir Harry was an expert in the emerging field of microwave spectroscopy which he used to study molecules in the laboratory and to detect them in the vast molecular clouds found between the stars in interstellar space.

    Together with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, Sir Harry conducted lab experiments to simulate the chemistry of stars and interstellar space by using lasers to vaporise carbon. These experiments eventually led to a discovery which revolutionised chemistry and earned the trio of researchers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996.

    The chemists had discovered a new form of carbon; Buckminsterfullerene (also known as C60 or Buckyball) and other fullerenes.

    The discovery also opened up a world of new opportunities for various industries, from nanotechnology and energy production to medicine.

    A keen advocate of science outreach, Sir Harry is also remembered for inspiring children and adults alike with his engaging talks and practical workshops.

    Read Sir Harry Kroto's obituary


For all general queries, email lifesci@sussex.ac.uk

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