Yesterday, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Sir John Gurdon and Professor Yamanaka. I was surprised at how incredibly emotional this made me, I have believed for a while that these two have done some of the most groundbreaking and interesting research in my lifetime. John Gurdon proved a while ago that all cells contain the same genetic information and that these cells can be reprogrammed to act like specific cell types. Yamanaka proved a few years ago that mature adult cells from a mouse could also be reprogrammed into stem cells and reproduced this with human cells. This has led to breakthrough technology that bypasses the ethical dilemmas of using embryonic stem cells. Scientists can now take “diseased cells” and turn the clock back to watch their development.
The reason perhaps that this has made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside is that I have always felt Gurdon was a scientist to look up to and aspire to. His experiments are applauded as being highly sophisticated and elegant by his colleagues and anyone in research knows that academia is not a profession filled with back patting and honest compliments. He is an honorary fellow at my college and I have always heard him spoken of with nothing but fondness and admiration. Many academics have said that he is approachable and willing to help all students and colleagues with even the simplest of queries. Perhaps what I admire most of all has to do with a story one of his students told us in our first year. Gurdon wanted to go to university to study science but at school he was actively discouraged from doing so. He was told it was a waste of his time and everyone elses, that his scientific knowledge was poor and he would never achieve anything as a scientist.
I don’t know if he lacked confidence or if he simply didn’t enjoy learning facts. But what I do admire is that Gurdon looks back on this school report when things in the lab don’t go according to plan and he still wonders if that school teacher was right. I admire that someone who has achieved so much, who has an entire institute in Cambridge named after himself, is still able to take a step back and doubt himself. As a person who regularly feels that I don’t deserve to be at the university which I’m at, Gurdon has been one of the few scientists that have inspired me to think that self-doubt can be used in a positive way.
I once had tea with a brilliant geneticist whose name I won’t reveal here and he said “I’ve never wanted to be special, I just want to be good at what I do”. That’s the impression I get from Gurdon and that’s exactly what I hope for myself too.