Professor Sir Richard Roberts FRS, Nobel Laureate, or Rich as he is known amongst the community of worldwide scientists, began his research career at the University of Sheffield as a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. He went on to work at Harvard University, served as Deputy Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories under Jim Watson, of DNA fame, where Rich and Phillip Sharp independently determined that genes of higher organisms contain introns. He left Cold Spring Harbor to become Research Director at New England Biolabs, known to many as the premier suppliers of the tools of Molecular Cloning, but to the luck few as major supporters of fundamental molecular biology of restriction and modification science. Rich was in fact the first person I ever emailed in about 1987. Here, Rich answers some questions I posed over the weekend, from his home in the Boston area of Massachusetts, USA. The interview will be posted in several parts.
Q How did your first become interested in Science and Biology in particular?
My interests in science started with an interest in mathematics fostered by the headmaster at my Junior School. He used to give me puzzles to solve, which I loved – and still do. Then I moved on to chemistry after my father bought me a child’s chemistry set for Christmas when I was about 11. That gave me a taste for hands on science and I was soon hooked. After exhausting the “suggested” experiments I soon discovered I could make fireworks and explosives, which I loved. I figured I would become an industrial chemist, but when I discovered the thrill of discovery during the first year of my Ph.D. I knew that basic research was going to be much more fun. Although, my Ph.D. was strictly about chemistry I read a book by John Kendrew, called the “Thread of Life” that described the beginnings of molecular biology. By the end of the book I was completely hooked and realized that molecular biology was going to be my chosen path. I have never regretted the choice and now have combined molecular biology with mathematics and much of what I do is now called bioinformatics. Not only is it great fun, but it is crucial to the future of biology. We have learnt how to sequence DNA very cheaply and so most of what we will know about biology is going to come from the careful interpretation of DNA sequences – bioinformatics! I am lucky that the two passions in my life, mathematics and molecular biology, are now combined and are providing an incredibly fulfilling life.
Q Was there anything you remember from school or University, good or bad that has influenced the way you have approached research during your career?
Some of this is covered above, but I would also state that my approach to research is to try and make sure that I always pursue some very straightforward projects that are guaranteed to produce publishable results, but I always have more risky projects going that may lead to new discoveries. One of the keys to a successful research career is to constantly be on the lookout for those unusual results that are unexpected, but which tell you that something is happening that is unknown and unpredicted by current theory. I love it when experiments don’t work, because then you know your ideas are wrong and Nature is behaving in some unexpected way – but of course one must be sure to repeat the results many times, because often the “unexpected” results come from a poorly designed experiment or because technically you did something wrong. I usually think of the latter as inadvertently spitting in the tube!
To be continued.....