Fear and hope inspired me to take up science. When I came home after obtaining a first class honours degree in molecular biology from the University of Edinburgh, my grandmother, bless her, asked me if I was now going to get a proper job in the local slate quarries. By contrast, my freethinking, autodidact father, when he wasn’t working at the Co-op, was inculcating me with a materialistic worldview and a conviction that – through formal education – even a working-class boy from Cumbria could contribute to human knowledge and progress.
At Ulverston Comprehensive School, my father’s inspiration synergised with the nurturing efforts of teachers who challenged me intellectually, and who encouraged merit and excellence. They led me to Charles Darwin and the importance of reason and observation, and – via Gregor Mendel and Thomas Hunt Morgan – to the scientific method and experimentation.
It was then only a small step to the discovery of the scientific and philosophical works of the pioneers of molecular biology – particularly Jacques Monod, author of Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, and his fellow biologist François Jacob. The reductionist programme they initiated resulted in an avalanche of understanding, that culminated in the sequencing of the entire human genome – one of the greatest triumphs of our civilisation.
The challenge and privilege for me now is to use this information to increase our understanding of how whole animals work. Thanks Grandma. Thanks Dad.