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Computing: the beginning of the love affair


Émigrés often make the best discoveries
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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We had by now, in the late '60s, obtained some more space from the MRC [Medical Research Council]. The idea was originally that I would have a division of my own. The lab then was divided into… like Gaul, it had been divided into three divisions. I was supposed to get the fourth, but Francis and I agreed we would combine ours. And, of course, we changed its name, from Molecular Genetics to Cell Biology. And our idea was to import as many people as we could get hold of to work in this field. There were a large number of young English… young English people in America in different labs, and one of the things we did was to bring some of them back. And the idea was that they could work on anything they liked provided it had something to do with these new problems of development, or of how cells perform in development. And by doing this, people asked us what were the qualifications for people to come back, and we said, just interest in the subject. And having this rather flexible thing, we attracted people from background… all kinds of backgrounds. And being one of the great successes of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology that in fact you could come from any background and if the… if you were interested in the… in the actual problem and on how to resolve it, then that qualified to get you in. For example, Graham Mitchison wrote to me - he was an algebraic topologist, his only contact with biology, I suppose, is because his uncle Avrion Mitchison was an immunologist - and we said okay, come and work... come and work on development and these gradients. John Sulston was an organic chemist by background. John White was an engineer. And I've always found that the best people to push a science forward are in fact those who come from outside it. Maybe that's the same in culture as well. The émigrés are always the best people to make the new… make the new discoveries. And so we then had a group of people working over a wide range of biology, including the new nematode work. Francis had become interested in vision, and was deep in reading Hubel and Wiesel's papers. It was during this time that we made contact with David Marr, who was a young mathematician and whom we said well, come and work in the lab. And gave him a job in the lab simply because he was working on something interesting. So if you like, when someone said to me once, what is the nature of the organisation in your laboratory? I could only think of one reply, which was, ‘Loose gangs’. There were just groups of people who got together and whose aim was to push the subject forward. And that is how I think this whole new work developed.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Graham Mitchison, Avrion Mitchison, David Marr

Duration: 3 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010