Discussing the science of success (left to right): Dr Harpal Kumar, Charles Manby, Jonathan Edwards, Sir Paul Nurse and Professor Andy Oates
Something special is happening near St Pancras Station in London.
Rising from the site of some dusty old railway sidings, Europe’s biggest and most ambitious research hub, the Francis Crick Institute, is taking shape.
When it’s complete it will house over 1,200 of the world’s best scientists, working together in state-of-the-art facilities to tackle the big questions in human disease.
Cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and a whole host of other conditions will be put under the microscope, opening a new chapter in scientific discovery.
It’s a hugely ambitious project.
As Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winning geneticist, President of the Royal Society, and Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute said, “If we get this right, we could change the world.”
But getting it right will require drive, determination and desire to be the best, which is why Sir Paul is set on hiring only the cream of ‘scientific athletes’ to be in his world-beating team.
Last week that athleticism was on show in the historic rooms of the Royal Society – the oldest and arguably most distinguished science academy in the world – as a sporting great, a Nobel Prize winner, and an athletically-gifted rising star of science had their say on the science of success.
Funding the future of research
At £650 million, the Crick doesn’t come cheap, which is why we are working with some of the UK’s most generous philanthropists to help us raise a colossal £100 million towards the project.
And to inspire the generous supporters who are getting involved, we’re hosting numerous talks and events.
Last week we were joined by guests eager to learn about the Crick, the science, and the qualities needed to propel it to success. Chaired by Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, Dr Harpal Kumar, the evening explored the links between science and sport, and the mental strength that ties the two together.
Scientists can’t jump…
Launching the evening’s talks, the audience were delighted to hear from British triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who gave them some fascinating insights into the mindset of a true scientific athlete.
Most of us know Jonathan as a British, Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic Champion, as well as the world record holder and undisputed King of the triple jump.
But fewer people know that Jonathan began his career in a cytogenetics lab investigating chromosomes – the 23 tightly wound packages of DNA present in each of the tens of trillions of cells that make up our bodies,
But ultimately, a career in the lab wasn’t for him, and as his prowess as an athlete grew, he swapped the lab for the track in the late 80’s. The rest is, literally, history.
“In 1995, to my complete shock, I became the world champion and the world record holder. I’d hopped, stepped and jumped further than anyone else in the world. Ever. And that is really quite cool” said Jonathan.
And this accomplishment, he said, was down to having a strong sense of purpose, obsessing over the smallest details and having a strong support network around him, qualities we see as integral to scientific success.
Feel the rhythm of the ‘biological clock’
The next speaker, Professor Andy Oates, embodies these scientific qualities.
When his career as a professional cyclist ended prematurely through injury, Andy took the sense of purpose, drive and ability to focus on detail that made him a successful cyclist and translated it into becoming a world-leading developmental biologist.
Growing from a single egg to a complex person is not simple. It requires cells to be perfectly coordinated, with even the smallest mistake having big consequences. “Isn’t it amazing how you all managed to build your backbone?” joked Andy “Well done everybody!”
Andy spoke of how our spines seem to be built to a rhythm. His pioneering research has lead to the discovery of a biological clock that ‘taps out a beat’ that cells grow to.
And this rhythm seems to be found in many, many biological ’tunes’. “Perhaps this rhythm is where the information is?” Andy hypothesised, and maybe our bodies dance to its tune.
If Andy is right, then this could open up new ways of looking at different diseases. Seeing cancer as the cacophony that results from a few wrong notes in an orchestra, the future of his research may be to find a conductor capable of turning this noise back into a symphony once more.
A culture of “creative anarchy”
The evening finished with Sir Paul Nurse, head of the Royal Society, saying a few words about The Francis Crick Institute, and an address from Charles Manby, chairman of the Create The Change campaign, thanking the generous philanthropists for their support towards the Crick.
Sir Paul’s vision is to create a “culture of creative anarchy” at the Crick. With no boundaries to the scientists, they will have no limitations, and the freedom to develop as best they can. It is in this environment, Sir Paul said, that discoveries will be made: “(At the Crick) we will not only do experimental science, but will experiment on the way we do science.”
Sir Paul compared his role at the Crick to that of a football coach. He will do his best to motivate his team, and set them up in the most effective way. But on the pitch, they will have the freedom to shine.
When the Crick opens in 2015 it could herald a new age of creative scientific discovery, reenergising the research community and leading to new therapies that could change countless lives.
As we know so well, scientific progress doesn’t come in leaps and bounds. Instead it comes from the dedication and steady progress of scientists that carry research forward each day. But when you think of where a simple hop, step or jump can take you, that’s progress we can’t wait to be a part of.
Sam Godfrey is a science communications manager at Cancer Research UK
- Read more on the Create The Change campaign here