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Developing ambitions: Professor Peter Rigby

21 Jan, 2011

Professor Peter Rigby
Professor Peter Rigby


Peter Rigby is one of the world’s best known developmental biologists and last year became Deputy Chairman of the Wellcome Trust. Ruth Paget finds out more about his background and how he sees the Trust developing.

Long before becoming a Wellcome Trust Governor, Peter Rigby was a biochemist. According to him, he “was supposed to be a serious organic chemist” and “never did biology at school”. However, while at Cambridge he decided to do “this new course called the biology of cells…and it all follows from there”.

From that point he developed a passion for molecular biology as a postgrad at the Medical Research Council’s prestigious Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He wanted to work for his “scientific hero” Sydney Brenner and, via a less than straightforward route, found himself working with Brenner and Brian Hartley, and interacting with Nobel Laureates such as Francis Crick and Max Perutz. “Going there was the most important thing I did because you really got the education, in terms of what proper science looks like.”

From these promising beginnings, Rigby’s career transferred across the pond to Stanford University. While there he saw some exciting developments in bioscience: “I watched John Morrow, working on the next bench, clone a piece of eukaryotic DNA for the first time.”

A move back to London to teach biochemistry at Imperial College followed his stint at Stanford. In 1983, while researching cancer, he “cloned a gene because I thought it was important in making a tumour”. The project involved trying to find out when and where it was normally expressed and, with invaluable help from a colleague, he discovered that it was expressed in the embryo but not in normal, adult tissues. This observation led him into developmental biology.

He moved to the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill to pursue his research and lead a group he describes as “the best developmental biology group in the world for most of the Nineties”. In 1999, he went to run the Institute of Cancer Research.

Then in 2008 Rigby joined the Wellcome Trust’s Board of Governors; he took over as Deputy Chairman in October this year. Earlier connections with the Trust included his role as independent director on the Genome Research Limited Board of the Sanger Institute, and he chaired the Interview Committee for the Principal Research Fellowships – something he feels privileged to have been part of as “the science you see is pretty spectacular”. He maintains a professorship in developmental biology at the University of London and says he still has “a few more things I want to do in the lab”.

Looking to the future for the Trust, Rigby foresees two quite different agendas: “One is globalisation. Science in ten years’ time will look very different…Western Europe and America…have dominated science and that won’t be true anymore. The Trust is in an extraordinary position in that we can fund science anywhere and can fund the brightest people doing the most interesting things.”

The second is the “radical change” in the way the Trust funds science in the UK, represented most clearly by the Investigator Awards. He is very supportive of these, but is aware that they are being launched “against a background where the public funding of science is potentially going to be quite constrained”.

Despite these challenging times, he’s finding his role enormously enjoyable: “The fact that we have this independence and we don’t have to pursue the government’s latest agenda is a terrific source of strength.”

Away from the boardroom, Rigby is an avid Manchester United supporter and finds that “the canal boat is the thing I enjoy the most, it relaxes me like nothing else I’ve ever done”. When he retires he’s “going to build a new one and drive it all round the country. It’s a great way to see England, you get this completely different view”.

Ruth Paget, Project Manager, Wellcome Trust

Image credit: Wellcome Images
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