Professor Irene Tracey

CBE FMedSci
Warden
Leadership and Teaching

Professor Irene Tracey is Warden of Merton College, Oxford, her alma mater. She is also Professor of Anaesthetic Neuroscience in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and Pro-Vice Chancellor (without portfolio) at the University of Oxford. Irene did her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Oxford in Biochemistry under the supervision of Professor Sir George Radda. Her research focused on the early use of magnetic resonance imaging methods to study disease mechanisms in humans. She then held a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School working at the MGH-NMR (now Martinos) imaging centre.

In 1997, Irene returned to Oxford and was a founding member of the now world-leading Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB – now the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging); she was its Director from 2005 until 2015. Irene was tenured in 2001 at the now named Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics and was a medical tutor and Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford. From 2007 until 2019, Irene was appointed to the Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Sciences with Fellowship at Pembroke College, where she is now an Honorary Fellow. Until recently she was also Head of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences – a 550-person department of scientists and clinicians drawn from neurology, ophthalmology and anaesthetics. She still teaches undergraduate medics about pain and imaging through lectures and the occasional tutorial.

Alongside senior leadership roles within the University, Irene has served and continues to serve on many national and international committees, such as the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), British Neuroscience Association and Lundbeck Brain Prize Committee. She is currently appointed by government to the Council of the Medical Research Council and is President-elect of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS). She is a passionate advocate for women in science and is involved in several mentorship schemes.

In 2008 she was awarded the triennial Patrick Wall Medal from the Royal College of Anaesthetists and in 2009 was made an FRCA for her contributions to the discipline. In 2015 she was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and in 2017 won the Feldberg Foundation Prize, followed in 2018 by the British Neuroscience Association’s Outstanding Contribution to Neuroscience award. In the New Year’s Honours list 2022, she was appointed by HM The Queen to a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Medical Research.

Research

Over the past 25 years her multidisciplinary research team has contributed to a better understanding of pain perception, pain relief and nociceptive processing within the injured and non-injured human central nervous system using advanced neuroimaging techniques and novel paradigm designs. They have also been investigating the neural basis of altered states of consciousness induced by anaesthetic agents.

Her work has both discovery and translational elements and has contributed to a fundamental change in how we view pain as an emergent experience not simply related to nociceptive inputs. Irene has successfully supervised 35 DPhil (PhD) students from a range of basic science and clinical backgrounds; and supervised and mentored over 20 postdoctoral (clinical and basic) fellows. Many of these former members now have permanent faculty positions and professorships at prestigious institutions.

Public Engagement, Media and Outreach

Irene is actively involved in public understanding of science, outreach and media activities. For example, she has appeared multiple times on BBC Radio 4 (Today, All in the Mind, World Service/R4-WT's Exchanges at the Frontier) and many other radio outlets (e.g. BBC Radio 5 Live and local outlets).

She was the creator and presenter for a two-episode programme in 2017, From Agony to Analgesia, that led to an additional 4-part BBC Discovery radio series that she created and presented, entitled: The Anatomy of Pain, aired in 2018. 

Further coverage includes: two BBC Horizon TV documentaries, a Science Museum exhibition in London, public lectures at DANA, University Museum, Cheltenham, and multiple newspaper and magazine articles – the most recent being an upcoming Good Housekeeping one on pain/opioids.

She was profiled in both The Lancet (2017) and the New Yorker magazine (2018); interviewed in April 2019 for BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili; and listed in The Times 2020 Life Sciences Global ‘Power List’.

Publications

Books (not listing book chapters):

Published over 235 original manuscripts, h-index (Scopus)= 82.

Patent Granted: P38464GB “Perception Loss Detection” (China, USA, Europe pending)