Sydney Brenner has been many things in life. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in South Africa; a bright student who then became a tireless scientist; one of the first people to see the double helix model for the DNA from Watson and Crick; a Nobel laureate and recipient of many more awards. To this list, he can now add the title of the first scientists to become a doctor ‘honoris causa’ by the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).
It was an honour to have Prof. Brenner at the PRBB, where the ceremony took place last April 3rd. After signing the book of honour of the university, he was taken to a packed Conference Hall – I have never seen it so full.
He was walked down the corridor by Arcadi Navarro, director of the CEXS-UPF. Three researchers did their laudatios honoring three different fields to which Brenner has greatly contributed: Miguel Beato (on molecular biology), Fernando Giráldez (on developmental biology) and Jaume Bertranpetit (on evolutionary biology).
It was then Brenner’s turn. He seems weak in his wheelchair, with his respiratory aid suitcase always next to him. But the moment he stands up and starts talking to the audience, he is transformed into his best: a scientist that has been creating new areas of research from scratch all his life; a self-made researcher who has changed the face of modern biology; a man who can captivate audiences with his knowledge, experience and wit.
But don’t take my word for it. You can listen to his whole acceptance speech here:
Later on the day I had a chance to interview him. Again, he looked tired up to the moment we started speaking; then all his vitality unleashed. The secret to his success? I asked him. His modest answer was: “I was born in the right place at the right time”.
He talked about the current ‘slavery of PhDs’ in America and suggested young researchers should move to new areas of research, new subjects where experience doesn’t count, because nobody knows anything (yet).
He dismantled ‘big data’ as being mostly noise, and insisted that one has to decompose big problems into soluble problems in order to understand things.
He highlighted the importance of scientists – “who know how to solve problems, unlike politicians”- in education and health for the general society.
He regretted the way funders are becoming more and more conservative and unwilling to take risks, with the consequence that ‘new things in science are dying’.
And he remembered his time in Cambridge, UK, where a group of young researchers had many ideas that everyone thought were crazy but that – thanks to the trust and support of the MRC – turned out to change biology as we know it.
All in all, an exciting time with Mr Brenner… watch this space for a full interview with him, which will be published in the next issue of El·lipse!
A report by Maruxa Martinez, Scientific Editor at the PRBB
All pictures and the video are from the UPF.