Recorded: 20 May 2004
Why did I become a scientist? I think it was an accident of what happened at school. I went to a school that traditionally was not very strong in science. You were expected to become a lawyer or a politician. My family had been journalists, lawyers; there was no history of scientists. Science wasn’t something I grew up with at home or anything. And I remember at school my favorite subject by far was history. I loved reading historical novels, historical biographies, and history books. And in the English school system you have to make decisions as to what direction you would go in. You really had to specialize in your education at a quite young age between 14 and 15 and the school took this quite seriously. They brought me into one of these interviews and they looked through my subjects and they said, ‘What’s the thing that you are most interested in?’ and I said, history. And they said, that is clear you are very good at doing that. But they said you are also completely hopeless at English and if you want to study history you have to write essays and you have to read a lot and we are not really sure if studying history and English and those sort of subjects would really be suitable to you. Is there any other thing you are good at? And I think the only other thing I showed any interest in was chemistry. I hated math. I think largely because it was taught very badly, and for the same reason I did not really like physics because it was always taught terribly badly. But I had very good chemistry tutors and I’d enjoyed it and I understood it and I could do it. So I said, ‘Well actually chemistry’ and they said ‘OK, well chemistry you don’t have to write very much maybe you should study chemistry. And if you are going to study chemistry you will have to do physics and if you do physics you will have to do math.’ So I ended up having to do chemistry, physics and math at school and I guess that’s the reason, ultimately, why I became a scientist.
Well I enjoyed it at school but I think some children are very precocious and they get involved at a very young age; I wasn’t that sort of person. I think intellectually it was the only last couple of years that one started really to think about why one was doing what one was doing and get sort of emotionally involved I suppose. I did quite well in chemistry and I decided I would go off to university and study it and I’d arranged to go off and study it in York. And I decided to take a year off between leaving school and going to university. I spent quite a lot of time— I did a number of different things but I had sort of time, in school you are always busy having to work, having to take exams. But during that year off one of the things I did was I did a lot of reading and it was reading that instead of being told what to read— I ended up reading things that I decided to read. I started reading about molecular biology and about Darwin. And at school I think I had only once done biology and I found it to be incredibly boring. It was dissecting dead things it seemed to me. But then when I started reading about this— it’s the first time— I just found it fascinating and by the time I had finished that year I had decided I wanted to study biology. I didn’t study chemistry and I’ve also sort of regretted that I didn’t in a way, because I ended up learning very much less chemistry than would’ve been very useful but I think had I stayed with chemistry I would never have become a biologist and I probably wouldn’t have been a particularly good chemist. So it was probably a good thing.
In this year off [between high school and university] I started reading. There probably wasn’t one book, one author, one person suddenly. I just, I suppose, it was a stage in my life when I became more intellectually mature. I had time on my own. I think scientists are very mixed up people because they have to be rather introverted and yet on the other hand they have to be a little bit extroverted and that was the first time of my life when the sort of introverted side was allowed to sort of really develop and that was largely through books. It wasn’t like I had decided to become a scientist at that stage. I thought it was fun and I got to university. I don’t think I’d ever heard of a Ph.D. I had never heard of research. I had no ideas about these things. I just wanted to study biology. It wasn’t like I knew that I wanted to do research. I had no idea that such a career existed in that stage.
Kim Nasmyth is the Head of the Biochemistry Department of the University of Oxford and the Whitley Professor of Biochemistry. He was educated in Great Britain and earned his Ph.D in Zoology from the University of Edinburgh. He did his postdoctoral studies in Ben Hall's labolatory in Seattle Washington. He spent one year at Cold spring Harbor Laboratories as a Robertson Fellow. He was the Director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna (Austria). He is one of the discoverer of cohesin, protein complex which during cell division is crucial for faithful chromosome segregation.
Professor Nasmyth is a fellow of the Royal Society and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received many scientific honours, including the Max Perutz Prize, the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the Wittgenstein Prize and the Unilever Science Prize.
More information: Wikipedia