A life studying life
A conversation with honorary PhD recipient Sir Paul Nurse
“They saw me as the kid who just couldn’t seem to finish school,” Sir Paul Nurse said of his parents. “Oh, well. It seems to have worked out all right in the end.”
Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse was in his 30s when he discovered the gene-based mechanism that controls how organisms with nuclei divide as part of their natural life cycle. He has some surprising advice for today’s young scientists: what you learn about research as an undergraduate, he says, bears no resemblance to what a life in science is really like.
“When you’re a student, you’re taught only the best experiments—the ones that work—but reality is completely different,” Dr. Nurse said during his visit to the Weizmann Institute to receive a PhD honoris causa at the 2018 International Board. “During my doctoral studies, I felt like such a failure I nearly gave up. That’s why I thought very hard about what I would focus on as a postdoctoral fellow.”
He chose his topic—the cell cycle—and took off from there.
Dr. Nurse identified a gene, first in yeast and then in humans, that controls a particular aspect of cell division. Later, in the achievement that led to the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that he shares with fellow Brit Prof. Tim Hunt, a Weizmann Institute Board member, and American Prof. Leland Hartwell, he determined how proteins coded by these genes help to determine whether a cell has divided properly—and if it has not, to trigger molecular events that destroy the cell. This was a discovery of tremendous clinical importance because, if a cell divides incorrectly yet survives, the result can be cancer.
At the annual Clore Lunch, Dr. Nurse delivered an address in which he spoke of how science creates revolutionary change. At the same time, he says, scientists tend to be highly individualistic, so managing this change is “a bit like herding cats.”
Not that Dr. Nurse has ever shied away from management. After serving as a young department head at Oxford, he merged two existing British organizations to found Cancer Research UK, now the world's largest charity devoted to supporting the scientific study of cancer. He served as President of New York’s Rockefeller University for eight years, then returned to the UK to take up a five-year term as President of the Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world. Concurrently, he combined three biomedical research centers in London to create the Francis Crick Institute, where he now serves as director.
“I’m good at running things—I spend half my life doing it—but I enjoy science much more,” Dr. Nurse says. “Still, I’m truly touched by the fact that society pays me to do curiosity-driven work. My administrative duties are a way to pay society back.”
The recent trip to Israel—his first—gave Dr. Nurse the opportunity to reconnect with Weizmann Institute Prof. Ruth Arnon, who was President of the Israel Academy of Science and the Humanities during the period when Dr. Nurse, then at the Royal Society, brokered an agreement between the two countries.
Academics in Israel and the UK have a long history of fruitful collaboration, with hundreds if not thousands of joint projects being pursued at any given time. The 2015 agreement between the Royal Society and the Israeli Academy of Science and Humanities marked an uptick in this activity, providing funding for research in a number of key scientific areas, as well as funding for a postdoctoral exchange program that allowed newly-minted PhDs to travel to the other country to continue their work.
Like Prof. Arnon—who together with her husband Uriel, supports programs designed to nurture the next generation of scientists—Dr. Nurse sees education as essential.
“The Crick Institute has a teaching lab that has been visited by thousands of children, and we do targeted programming for schools in disadvantaged areas of London,” he says.
Himself the scion of a working-class family—all other members of his family left school before the age of 15—Dr. Nurse admits that his parents found his long years of training a bit perplexing. “They saw me as the poor kid who just couldn’t seem to finish school and graduate,” he quips. “Oh well. It seems to have worked out all right in the end.”