Successful scientists: What’s the winning formula?

Corinne Pritchard

Chris Denning 300x225 Successful scientists: What’s the winning formula?

Scientist Chris Denning

Nobel-prize winning biologist and pre-eminent stem cell scientist John Gurdon may not have had the best start to his career according to his school report, but for many more of today’s scientists their curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge started in the classroom.

When Gurdon was at Eton, his school masters remarked that for him to study science at university would be a ‘sheer waste of time.’ Fast forward barely a decade from that report and he was already making his first startling discoveries in his Oxford lab, and now after a lifetime of research and discovery, he’s being hailed as one of the world’s leading scientists.

Like Gurdon, Professor Chris Denning’s early school reports weren’t exactly promising, but he says it’s important not to underestimate the classroom for inspiring potential Nobel Prize winners of the future. The boy who didn’t pay enough attention and whose progress was slowed by a poor grasp of English is now a rising star of stem cell science. With a grant of approximately half a million pounds from the British Heart Foundation to work – among other things – on developing new treatments for a rare but devastating congenital heart condition called long QT syndrome.

So what happened? While hard work no doubt played a part in Chris’ success, he’s very clear about where the majority of the credit lies.  “At the tender age of thirteen my life was turned around by two things: a competitive friend, and an inspiring science teacher.  Mr Linburn’s passion for biology took me from someone who ‘could be good at this – if he tried harder’ to someone who not only could be good, but wanted to be.”

andreia bernado 300x225 Successful scientists: What’s the winning formula?

Dr Andreia Bernardo

Research scientist Dr Andreia Bernardo divides her time between labs in London and Cambridge, and has had what she describes as ‘the honour’ of seeing both of this year’s Nobel prize-winning biologists speak. Gurdon still attends lab meetings – and he was there even on the day of the Nobel announcement:

“I have to thank him – his work completely changed the field of developmental biology and ultimately paved the way to deriving human embryonic stem cells without having to use human embryos.”

Shinya Yamanaka, who shares this year’s prize with John Gurdon, was also a formative influence. “I was just finishing my PhD when he made his key stem cell discovery. In 2007, I went to one of his first talks after the research on human iPS cells was published. It was a really exciting time and I was fortunate enough to meet him – despite the magnitude of his findings, he was incredibly humble.”

And right alongside these amazing opportunities, Dr Bernardo traces her love of science all the way back to her teenage classroom in Portugal.  “At the age of 14 I had one really inspiring teacher who propelled me into science. I have a lot to thank her for – she recognised my interest and encouraged it.”

As part of the next generation of scientists, Professor Denning, Dr Bernardo and those like them are taking Yamanaka and Gurdon’s incredible discoveries to new, unimagined places.

Professor Denning says he is uniquely aware of his privileged place in history. “For decades we scientists struggled with massively complex ways of turning one type of cell into another, usually starting with egg cells like the frogspawn John Gurdon created, and moving slowly forward into other areas with the technology that created medical marvels like Dolly the Sheep.”

He goes onto say: “But for every step forward there was another setback, and the ethical considerations were massive. Without Yamanaka’s major discovery and the work of those who came before him, what we’re doing now would simply not be possible. In particular Jamie Thompson in the United States’ work on embryonic stem cells meant we started well ahead of the game.”

“Yamanaka transformed the way we think about stem cells. Who would have thought it only takes four genes to turn more or less any type of cell into a stem cell?”

But without the teachers that inspired them, these dedicated scientists making the most of the work that has gone before them may never have existed.

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  • Jeremy Hunter

    “The boy who didn’t pay enough attention and whose progress was slowed by
    a poor grasp of English is now a rising star of stem cell science.”

    Well, as long as he doesn’t drop his Ts…

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