How Nobel Prize winner proved his teachers wrong

British scientist Sir John Gurdon's path to academic glory began on a strange path. Photo / AP
British scientist Sir John Gurdon's path to academic glory began on a strange path. Photo / AP

What you learn at school isn't everything: at least that's according to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Sir John Gurdon.

The revered British biologist, dubbed the "godfather of cloning" and visiting the country for a research conference, today took a tour of Nelson College, the former school of New Zealand's greatest scientist, Sir Ernest Rutherford.

Like the great physicist, who grew up in a farming family and was helped through his education by scholarships, Gurdon's path to academic glory also began on a strange path.
Studying biology at England's Eton College, the teenaged Gurdon was at the "bottom of the bottom class" of 250 boys.

"That was quite an achievement, which most people couldn't achieve if they tried," the 82-year-old joked to the Herald.

"So what happened, as a result, my housemaster said, 'one thing's clear, we'll remove you from science - you're obviously not suited to that, so we'll have no more for the rest of your time at school'."

But with an intense interest in the biological world, he hung on to his ambition to be a scientist, and later switched from studying classics at Oxford's Christ Church to zoology.

Five decades later, in 2012, he was honoured with a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, shared with Japanese scientist Professor Shinya Yamanaka, for the groundbreaking discovery that all body cells have the same genes.

"One should remember that many people who have some achievement in life do not start that in school - they luckily have other chances."

It had been previously thought that once a cell becomes a certain type, such as a skin cell, it lost the instructions needed to turn into a piece of heart, or brain or kidney.

The finding, made when he was a young researcher, paved the way for modern stem cell science - especially the idea that a skin cell can be used to repair damaged, dying and worn-out body parts.

Nobel prize-winner Sir John Gurdon at the Nelson College today. Photo / Supplied
Nobel prize-winner Sir John Gurdon at the Nelson College today. Photo / Supplied

His breakthrough came when he was a young researcher, and took the genetic material from a cell lining a frog's gut, put it in an empty egg and watched as a tadpole developed.

The 1962 experiment marked the first time an animal had been cloned.
It proved for the first time that a highly specialised adult cell still contained all the genetic information needed to develop all the parts of the body.

It took 10 years for other scientists to accept his finding and until 2006 for it to bear fruit.

Particularly in his field, he said huge breakthroughs were being made all the time.
"The one that attracts everybody's interest now is the compositions of your genes, your so-called genome," he said.

"Sooner or later, everyone will have access to the details of the genes that they've inherited, and that we'll be able, increasingly, to predict the disorder or weaknesses which they will suffer.

"There may come a time when someone is thinking of marrying someone else, and they check their genome, and think there might be some potential disaster in the offspring."

As for the often-controversial subject of human cloning, Gurdon disagreed there was an ethical problem with the concept.

"It is of course known that identical twins are in fact a clone, and if you clone people, all you'd do is make multiple copies of identical twins.

"No one says that identical twins are ethically objectionable."

He noted that in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) had been perceived as ethically controversial until it was found to be effective.

Fellow British scientist Sir Robert Geoffrey Edwards, who pioneered the concept, was at first abused over his research, Gurdon said.

"People would write to him and say, I hope you die burning in hell, because this is the most atrocious thing to suggest.

"The interesting thing is after a couple of years, all of these people who might call themselves ethicists - they had the idea that there was something inherently wrong with IVF - they just disappeared, went to ground."

Asked if he feared that the world was experiencing a rising tide of anti-intellectualism - with British politician Michael Gove recently remarking over the UK's Brexit furore that people had "had enough of experts" - Gurdon argued that the public today was more curious than ever before.

"If intellectual means being aware of what's going on around you, I can only say I disagree completely with that," he said.

"More and more, people who have no scientific background say I want to know what scientists are doing now because it interests them."

Gurdon said he was especially impressed with pupils at Nelson College, who fired questions at him during an earlier public talk.

"I was impressed that the younger people were actually prepared to ask questions: that's unusual in England, where you'd find the students would never dare ask a question."

Of the school's most famous alumnus, meanwhile, Gurdon said he only became aware of Rutherford's work when was older, but described the fellow Nobel Prize winner as a "wonderful tribute to this country".

"And particularly so for someone with no obvious advantage, who must have competed at school, made a mark and went on to this amazing career."

Sir John Gurdon: in his own words

"I think science should be increasingly used as something that people can get into and contribute to, and indeed that's the case." - on science and society

"I was generally spared a lot of the distractions which can prevent people doing what they really think they can do." - on avoiding faculty duties to focus on his research

"I think that any scientific or technological breakthrough is ultimately extremely useful to everybody." - on scientific discovery

- NZ Herald

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