The Road to Discovery--Inspirations and Insights

At his public lecture "Nature's Gifts to Science" last week, Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner (pictured left) captivated his entire audience. Punctuating his talk with interesting anecdotes and humor, Brenner kept the crowd enthralled--and occasionally in stitches--for a full hour. His scientific work, insights, philosophy, and wit drew great admiration and bursts of applause and left many awestruck and inspired.

Renowned for his extensive work in molecular genetics, Brenner is best known locally for his role in bringing leading-edge biomedical sciences research to Singapore and in spearheading the Fugu genome project, which brought the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology international recognition. Brenner, who helped build up the research institute--one of Singapore's earliest--from scratch, has been a mentor to many of its young scientists since the mid-1980s. And he has been a principal advisor to Singapore's biomedical sciences leadership ever since.

Brenner's distinguished career in science spans over half a century. Now 75, he is still keenly involved in science--more so, in fact, than many scientists half his age. He holds more than 20 top honors and awards. However, Brenner, who together with two others, has just received this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning "genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death," maintains that nothing has changed for him. "I feel just the same as I did before," he says matter-of-factly.

To many younger scientists, though, Brenner is an icon. His research career, peppered with landmark discoveries that go all the way from uncovering the basic principles of how DNA instructs cells to make proteins to unraveling the genetic blueprint of the puffer fish, is an indelible part of the history of molecular biology.

Just what is the secret behind his brilliant career, and what is it that keeps him enthused on the long and arduous road to discovery? Next Wave Singapore sat down with Brenner after his talk to discuss these and other questions. According to Brenner, it is simply the science itself that keeps him going. "Solving problems and inventing new things keep one interested," he says.

Brenner's relentless quest for deeper understanding is an inspiration to many aspiring scientists in Singapore. "There is something about Sydney Brenner that emanates inspiration--the enduring scientist in him. If only we could have half of his resilience, a portion of his wisdom, and a pinch of his wit, then we could go quite a way," says postgraduate student Xue Yuen Lin. "He is the best role model we have in the sciences here," adds undergraduate Aaron Zhu, who like Lin, was among the hundreds who turned up for the Nobel laureate's public lecture. Zhu professes that he admires Brenner's dedication and intends to follow his footsteps by taking up a lifelong career in scientific research and development.

Indeed, with the current level of national support for scientific research, development, and innovation, opportunities abound for aspiring Singaporean scientists like Zhu. And in talking about the government's emphasis on developing the biomedical sciences here, Brenner sings the praises of the republic's bold initiatives. "At the moment, Singapore is doing the right thing, which is to train people," says Brenner. "One of the most important objectives of a knowledge-based industry is to hire the most sophisticated workforce within the country," he explains.

Putting matters in perspective, Brenner rationalizes that "in a small nation like this, there are just not enough people." So, although it is not possible to cover the whole of medicine, Singapore can "pick one area and put together a group of people to concentrate on that field." With a "mutually decided body" to coordinate the efforts and disburse funding support, it should be possible to "stimulate research and accelerate applications," he says.

One such effort is the nascent national Cancer Syndicate, which Brenner is sure will acquire the necessary critical mass to "become a very significant contributor to basic biological research." Under the SG$75 million initiative, local scientists will be trained through structured modules during their PhDs and project-based postdoctoral research programs.

Brenner recognizes the imperative to address the career needs of today's young scientists. He surmises that the root cause of the brain drain that is afflicting many countries stems from "structural problems in the world of science." More specifically, he says that "there is no proper career structure and no independent track for young persons to prove themselves," adding that "resistance to change is the real difficulty." Brenner feels strongly that academic entrepreneurship--researchers being able to work out their own ideas--must be facilitated. Without a vigorous entrepreneurial culture, Brenner believes that no matter how well a country may pay its scientists, they'll go elsewhere if they really want to explore their own ideas.

Brenner foresees the rise of two economic giants whose biotech development would soon surpass many developed nations. "By 2010, one half of the world's population will be in China and India," he remarks. "As China is effectively about 500 times the size of Singapore, it would take only 0.2% of the activity that China would be capable of to match Singapore's and a little more to match that of the United States," he comments. "From 1960 to 2000, the world changed completely; from 2000 to 2050 I think it will change even more," says Brenner.

One thing that Brenner believes will change our outlook is the volume of information that scientists are obliged to absorb. This is not just a problem for scientists, though. "In the face of information overload, to communicate all those [advances to the public] is a challenge," he says. Brenner feels that scientists today must train themselves to communicate more effectively with the public. "Maybe," he muses, "we should be communicating in pictures and in sounds. Information can be captured much easier that way." And developing that symbolic language--what Brenner calls a language of gadgets--to meet the challenge is one of the things he thinks is worthwhile pursuing.

In closing, Nobel laureate Brenner says it's time to look at the bigger picture--at the science of humanity. "We must look at humanity's genome, not the human genome. We must study ordinary people--with no hypothesis--in large numbers," he says. "We could perhaps just capture the picture of each person we screen," he says. "By 2020 we should be looking at the genetic sequences of a hundred thousand people," says Brenner with his characteristic optimism and enthusiasm.

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