Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Rich Roberts Part II

In the second half of the interview, Nobel Laureate Rich Roberts considers the impact of Nobel Prize winning discoveries and his own contribution to Molecular Biology. The Nobel Prize is a useful shorthand for identifying some of the most significant achievements in Science, but the criteria have changed a little since they were first introduced in 1901 and the enduring impact of some awards has been greater than others. I wanted to find out from Rich how he viewed the prizes, but it should also be said that some discoveries and some Scientists have not been recognised by the Nobel Committee, sometimes because of the rules. So for example, with one recent exception, Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously and no more than three people can share a particular prize. 

Q Which Nobel Prize apart from your own, do you think has had the greatest impact on Life Sciences and which one on your own career?

Obviously, the structure of DNA and the genetic code have provided the foundation for molecular biology, but my own personal favourite Nobel Prize winner is Fred Sanger (left), who recently passed away. He developed three key methodologies – protein sequencing, RNA sequencing and DNA sequencing that have really revolutionized molecular biology.  He received the Nobel Prize for the first and last of these, but could easily have won a third for RNA sequencing. But just as important as his discoveries was the fact that he was a true scientist and unbelievably modest about his own accomplishments. He would often say he liked to fiddle around in the lab – but what a fiddler! He is my own role model for how a scientist should behave.

Q Who personally has made the greatest impact on your career in Science and how?

While Fred Sanger has served as an excellent role model throughout my life, several other people have had a great influence. The headmaster, Mr. Broakes of St. Stephen’s School in Bath, who fostered my love of mathematics was incredibly influential in showing me the value of logical reasoning. My father, who encouraged and facilitated my love of chemistry, despite knowing nothing about it himself, had an enormous impact.  Kazu Kurosawa, who was a postdoc with David Ollis, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Sheffield University (the Department is shown,left, with the old section to the fore and the Sir Richard Roberts Building added later) taught me a great deal of chemistry, but especially how to think about experiments and to understand how to do them successfully. I should also mention a few people who had a big influence by making my career possible.  Jack Strominger with whom I did a post-doc at Harvard provided the resources and encouragement for my work on tRNAs and he also introduced me to Tom RajBhandary at MIT, who was extraordinarily helpful.

Q What do you consider your greatest achievement to date in Science?

While the discovery of introns and exons and mRNA splicing is the work for which I won the Nobel Prize, I really feel that my work on restriction enzymes has had a tremendous influence on many areas of research. These enzymes were crucial to starting the Biotechnology Industry and have led to a cornucopia of interesting findings. They helped me get started in bioinformatics and to realize that predicting function from DNA sequence data is going to be crucial for all biological research in the future.

In the final part, I ask Rich about his current research and interests.....

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