PROFESSOR William James is eager to crack on with his latest challenge.

The virologist, 57, is just about to step down after six years as Oxford University’s pro-vice-chancellor for planning and resources.

Since he took the job in 2011, the university has unveiled a dazzling array of new buildings at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and Begbroke Science Park, as well as impressive new funding deals with organisations including the European Investment Bank.

While it has clearly kept him occupied, Prof James is now itching to get back to his real passion: running his laboratory.

Working with other members of his team, he is leading cutting-edge research into stem cells and the molecular machinery of the HIV virus. It is exciting stuff – and a world apart from the realpolitik that has taken up much of his time recently.

He said: "If you had asked me 10 years ago whether I would ever be doing a job this political, I would almost certainly have said no."

He is fresh from a successful round of negotiations with Oxford City Council, which this month agreed to a radical overhaul of key worker housing rules. Over his time as pro vice-chancellor, he has also achieved something previously thought impossible by some – getting the various colleges to work together.

It has not been easy but they have finally created a joint capital strategy, the first of its kind.

"Up until then, there would just be a pot of cash and a big tussle between colleagues for a share," said Prof James.

"We are structured and have evolved to enforce local autonomy rather than central planning, so if you are responsible for that it can be quite hard work.

"I first got involved in that side of things when I was tasked by my department with figuring out what to with a broken liquid nitrogen machine in the basement. I had to decide if it was cost-effective to replace it or whether we should outsource it."

The father-of-two is particularly pleased with the proposed change to key worker housing rules, secured after months of lobbying senior city councillors to follow Cambridge’s lead.

It would mean the university could build low-cost accommodation for its staff and students on land it owns without also having to provide social housing.

Prof James added: "It has taken a lot of negotiation and dialogue but will make a huge difference in helping university recruit and retain key research and support staff. It’s also going to take a lot of pressure off the local market."

The university and its colleges plan to build 5,000 homes for staff, academics and students over the next decade, with a proposed ‘knowledge park’ in the Osney Mead industrial estate the flagship project.

Prof James has spearheaded this proposal, which is part of wider plans to regenerate Oxford’s West End.

He said: "Over the next five years that will be transformed and it will make a huge difference to the Oxford landscape and people will ask afterwards why it was not always like that."

Another key project he helped to get over the line was the £8.5m overhaul of the Iffley Road Sports Complex.

It was threatened by spiralling costs but saved last year thanks to support from senior figures, including Prof James and vice-chancellor Louise Richardson.

Prof James said: "At one stage it [the sports complex project] looked like it was going to break down, but we split it into phases and now I’m very pleased it’s going ahead."

A state-of-the-art ‘Star Wars’ floor – as Prof James has dubbed it – will also allow the centre’s hall to cater for 13 different sports, using light-up lines that can be changed at will.

After six years and even more wrangling before that, he has also managed to finish the first job handed to him by his predecessor - selling the Wolvercote paper mill.

Prof James was born in Gloucester, in 1960. His father, an engineer, built Hurricanes and Meteor planes at Gloucester Aircraft Company and his mother was a nurse. Their son was the first in the family to continue full-time education after the age of 14.

Growing up in a Catholic school, a curious young Mr James often got himself in trouble.

“I got a lot of beatings,” he recalled. “I asked a lot of questions – like ‘why do the leaves come out at spring?’ No-one knew the answers, so I wanted to find out.”

He went to Birmingham University to do a degree in genetics, before he was spotted by a scientist at the Nuffield Foundation in Oxford and invited to join a summer research project.

He said: "At that time, I didn’t see myself going into research – I didn’t like the practical sessions because it felt too much like following recipes – but I got completely hooked. We were working on a bacterium and how it germinated.

“It was pretty obscure stuff and it taught me that if you have a question that is interesting enough on its own terms, it doesn’t matter if it is relevant to stuff because you will get completely engrossed in solving that question."

He went on to complete a DPhil in microbiology at Oxford and then, in his own words, he never left.

Inspired by research that had been done into gene sequencing in the 1970s, he realised antisense RNA was destroyed along with messenger RNA – the carrier of genetic information in viruses like HIV – when they paired in human cells.

“I was the first person to show you could use this to block HIV replicating in human cells. Of course, I was young and naive and thought ‘we’ll soon be curing people!’ but there is a difference between demonstrating a phenomenon in a test tube and giving something safely to people."

Fast-forward 30 years and he is using gene-editing techniques once again to investigate ways of combating HIV.

His research focuses on how stem cells can be used to rewrite the defence cells of the brain to make them resistant to HIV. It could one day provide insights into which drugs can be used to help slow down or prevent the neuro-degenerative affects of the virus.