Biography - Airlie McCoy

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Airlie McCoy won the 2022 Kenneth N. Trueblood Award, which recognized her as one of the key architects of the most important software package for solving the phase problem in macromolecular crystallography, PHASER.

Airlie’s background is unusual; she pursued multiple majors for her B.Sc. degree at the University of Adelaide: Applied Mathematics, Mathematical Physics, Physics and Biochemistry (with first class honors). For her doctoral research at the University of Melbourne she studied protein structure and interactions. Ultimately, she moved to the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (CIMR), joining the Randy Read group, where she has worked ever since. It is here where Airlie’s talents really came to the fore. Her strong mathematical background and excellent crystallographic intuition, as well as her insight into the need for new methods in macromolecular crystallography, spurred her to develop the most impactful concept introduced into PHASER: the maximum likelihood methods and true multivariate statistics to broaden the range of convergence of the search methods for molecular replacement. Her sophisticated algorithm limits the number of solutions that need to be considered. She has the rare capacity to make theory work in practice.

The design, coding and automation of these methods is Airlie’s particular achievement. The success of the automation strategy, even for difficult cases, and its ease of use has resulted in PHASER becoming the default software for structure solution by MR in macromolecular crystallography. Roughly half of the structures in the protein databank since 2010 have been solved using PHASER. Therefore, not only has Airlie contributed to the canon of software for macromolecular crystallography, but also she has contributed significantly to the advancement of macromolecular crystallography itself.

Her abilities include not only implementing state-of-the-art concepts into PHASER code, but also her superb ability to explain these concepts in a clear and accessible manner using comprehensive and beautifully presented teaching materials and legendary patience. She is a role model for a whole generation of methods and software developers in the field, not just by her teaching but also by her mentoring of more junior researchers in the field.

Airlie embodies a truly exceptional level of achievement in computational crystallography. She is a truly inspirational leader in the style of so many great crystallographers before her. she shares her knowledge and experience generously, she is a great mentor, and she is a trusted, respected, and admired collaborator.