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research professor and epidemiologist at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the University of California in Los Angeles

Several factors in my formative years inspired me to take up science. I learned about Albert Einstein, whose major discoveries in physics were so important that he was named ‘Person of the Century’ in 1999 by Time magazine. In October 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite to be put into orbit. This immediately emphasised to Americans the value of science. Most importantly, two talented and dedicated teachers at my public high school taught me the fundamentals of mathematics and physics.

My honours mathematics and science fair project, on ‘Self-developed formulas to yield primitive Pythagorean triples’, gave me the thrill of discovering simple mathematical formulae. My honours physics class introduced me to important physical phenomena, such as charge-to-mass ratio and Robert Millikan’s oil-drop experiment. These two subjects involving the electron were the basis for Joseph Thomson’s 1906 Nobel Prize and Robert Millikan’s 1923 Nobel Prize.

Looking back, my inspiration was fairly similar to that of the West Virginia boys in Joe Johnston’s wonderful 1999 film October Sky, and that of the writer Michael Crichton – who eloquently described in his 2003 lecture Aliens cause global warming how ‘science represented the best and greatest hope for mankind’.