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The University of Southampton
Biological SciencesOur alumni

David Barlow BSc Zoology, PhD, 1974

Researcher and film-maker

David Barlow's Photo

It may come as a surprise to some people, but the unremarkable building housing Biological Sciences at Boldrewood has been the focus of many extraordinary scenes recorded on film over the years, from shots for the celebrated BBC Life on Earth series, to dramatic sequences inside living bodies for Channel 4 and even IMAX film features.

Biological Sciences has always been very supportive of my work. And now it’s nice to be able to give something back.

In September 2008 the man behind these projects, David Barlow, an Honorary Research Fellow in Neurophysiology, scooped a major award for his photographic sequences in a TV series for National Geographic called “Inside the Living Body”.

The Emmy, the TV equivalent of the Oscars, was presented in New York by the National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences for outstanding individual achievement in a craft.  But the unassuming scientist, whose work as a special effects director takes place mainly in his photographic lab in the School, was actually too busy to go and collect it.  “I had a deadline to finish another project and I couldn’t really afford the time to go!” So David’s colleague Steve Gomez, who did the computer animation for the series and was jointly nominated with David, accepted the golden award which is now shared between them.

David’s fascinating career began in 1971 when he started as a Zoology undergraduate and then began Physiology and Biochemistry at what was then the brand new Biomedical Sciences building on the Boldrewood Campus.  In 1975 he was offered a PhD, studying under the renowned Professor Michael Sleigh, and later worked at the School as a research assistant. His main studies involved cilia flagella - tiny hair-like projections of protozoa and research on brine and fairy shrimps.  During this time he made many contacts in the film and TV world.

His first film, for the David Attenborough “Life on Earth” series in 1978, focused on tiny single cell pond organisms.  But he had also been working on medical projects for the NHS and pharmaceutical companies, and in 1983 he was offered a major project for Channel 4 called “The Living Body”, where specialist microscopic biomedical photography was required.

More TV series followed, including projects for Horizon and Equinox, and in 1997 he was involved in “The Human Body” series for the BBC.  He’s also made teaching films and an IMAX version of The Human Body for the Discovery Channel.

He was now becoming well-known for his scientific simulations, using a special effects technique on real-life film in combination with anatomically accurate models.  His recreations of operations have also won him the prestigious Swedish Lennart Nilsson Award for outstanding scientific photography.

“People say you can’t tell the difference between the re-creations and reality”, says David, “but of course you can’t always probe around inside people or animals with a microscope and camera whilst they are undergoing major surgery or stressful situations”.

Recent projects include the BBC series “Fight for Life”, about recent medical innovations, which followed the treatment of people in hospital who had had heart attacks and other life-threatening illnesses. There was also the Channel 4 series, “Extraordinary Animals in the Womb”, featuring a variety of animals with strange and unusual birth procedures.

As well as kangaroos and penguins, this shows the embryonic journeys of tiger sharks which devour their siblings, and parasitic wasps, whose extraordinary cannibalistic birth inside another animal was the inspiration for those shocking scenes in the film “Alien”.  All have been recreated and integrated seamlessly into the film with special effects using silicon models.  David’s state-of–the-art microscope captures images on 35mm film and lets the viewer move around the subject.

The Emmy may be a major scoop for some filmmakers but what this modest scientist enjoys most is working on his projects in the lab and at his home, bringing the marvels of the living world to new generations of students and TV viewers.

He continues to be involved with microscopy research groups at the University and at Southampton General Hospital.  An ongoing collaborative project is to put together an archive of cellular events, so that there is a collection of work preserved for the use of future scientists.

“Biological Sciences has always been very supportive of my work”, says David.  “And now it’s nice to be able to give something back”.

Emmy award
Emmy award
David Barlow
David Barlow
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