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Simply science: the Gurdon at 21

29 Jun, 2012

Wellcome Trust / Cancer Research UK Gurdon InstituteLast week, I gatecrashed a party at the Wellcome Trust / Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. To celebrate the institute’s 21st anniversary, many of its current and former staff had gathered to hear a programme of scientific talks and to catch up with old friends and colleagues.

As an outsider, I was deeply impressed by the spirit of the Gurdon’s scientists, and by an appeal to cut through some of the complexity of modern biology.

Professor Sir John Gurdon sounds rather embarrassed as he explains how he came to have an institute named after him while still very much alive. Sir John was the oldest of the six scientists who co-founded the institute in 1991, so when the time came to give it a more personal name than the ‘Wellcome Trust / Cancer Research Campaign Institute’ (as it was originally), his name was adopted. He says there was every reasonable expectation that it wouldn’t be named after a living scientist for too long. “It’s just one respect in which I have failed to live up to expectations,” he concludes.

Such modesty and humour seems to characterise the Gurdon Institute’s senior staff. Sir John is keen to credit Professor Ron Laskey for much of the institute’s success, as well as the current director, Professor Daniel St Johnston. Laskey credits Sir John, of course, while St Johnston pays tribute to Professor Tony Kouzarides for making sure everyone gets merry and joins in the spirit of the institute’s infamous Christmas parties.

Professor Sir John Gurdon

Sir John Gurdon

We’ve heard a lot about these parties in the past two days. Many of the speakers who have returned to the Gurdon for this celebration have included compromising photographic evidence of their colleagues among their scientific presentations. They fuel my growing sense of the collegiate spirit of the Gurdon and its democratic ethos. Decisions about the running of the institute are made collectively by its research group leaders, and the vote of the most junior group leader carries the same weight as the director’s.

Similarly, the institute has been kept small enough so that, while of course everyone recognises the director on sight, St Johnston tells me he also knows everyone who works there. And more than just knowing their names, he is ready – as everyone is – to have a chat, whether about their research or anything else.

Vox pop: During the rather noisy lunch breaks, I interrupted myriad reunions to ask people to describe the Gurdon Institute – and also whether they could remember how they celebrated their own 21st birthday, starting with Sir John Gurdon himself….

Seeking simplicity

About half of the speakers at the symposium were former ‘Gurdonites’; the rest included such scientific luminaries as Sir Paul Nurse. Giving the first talk, Sir Paul raised a concept that became something of a theme over the two days. To paraphrase, he recommended looking for the wood rather than the trees.

Sir Paul studies regulation of the cell cycle in yeast. His discovery of a key cyclin-dependent kinase gene in yeast and its analogue in humans led to a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Today, as well as being President of the Royal Society and the founding director and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, Sir Paul continues to study the role of cyclin-dependent kinases in cell cycle regulation.

He took us through recent research showing that, while cells have different cyclin-dependent kinases that switch on each stage of the cell cycle in turn, it is also possible to push the cell through the entire cycle using just one of them. Rather than requiring a specific signal, each stage of the cell cycle can be triggered by the overall level of cyclin-dependent kinases passing a certain threshold.

Sir Paul described this as an “incredibly simple model”, adding that having many different cyclin-dependent kinases does permit finer regulation of the cell cycle. His point, however, was to show that teasing out the interactions of every single molecular species in a cell or system does not necessarily lead you to a correct model of how it works.

“Description is not understanding,” he said, referring to a slide with a “depressingly” complete schematic of cyclin-dependent kinases and their regulation by numerous genes. In this case, he argued, looking at all the different cyclin-dependent kinases can distract us from understanding what really drives the cell cycle.

Opening day two of the symposium, Professor Adrian Bird agreed that there is a lot of wallowing in the complexity of biology. “Biology is complex – and increasingly complex – but life is simple,” he said, adding that it is vital in research to seek out that simplicity.

Working model

Life certainly seems simple at the Gurdon Institute: careful attention to the way it is run and even the way the building was designed provides its researchers with an ideal environment for doing science. A passion for the work is fused with a great sense of fun. Emphasising open communication, creativity and social activities that bypass any sense of hierarchy allows Gurdon scientists – from the director to the PhD students – to be themselves, concentrating on what really matters (doing research) and enjoying themselves while they’re at it.

It is a model that has many admirers: Professor Charles ffrench-Constant said the Gurdon is an inspiration for the new Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, especially in terms of communication and recruitment. He has even made sure his centre has a designated barbecue area for summer parties.

Sir Paul called the Gurdon a “jewel in the crown of British science” and suggested he wants to create a similar ethos at the Francis Crick Institute, despite it being a much larger institution (the Gurdon has a football team; the Crick will probably be able to supply enough players for an entire league).

Professor Jordan Raff, who was at the Gurdon for 15 years before moving to the University of Oxford, impishly asked whether the Gurdon Institute is really all that special. “Lots of places are very good scientifically,” he said, “and lots of places throw great parties.” But what Raff thinks people like ffrench-Constant and Sir Paul really want to emulate is the astonishing speed with which the Gurdon established itself as one of the best places in the world to do science.

At 21 years old, the Gurdon has definitely come of age. What I take away from my visit is the universal warmth and affection its researchers past and present hold for it. As Raff said, “It was John and Ron’s institute, but it was all of our institute too.

“That will be hard to replicate.”

Image credit (John Gurdon photo): Wellcome Images
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