Recorded: 03 Jul 2003
1968, in November I came to a meeting in Boston. It was a joint meeting of the Genetic Society of America and the cell biologists. I gave a talk. It was held in the Sheraton or the Prudential, one of these big hotels— in Boston. I gave one of these fifteen-minute talks which are held in a small room with no windows. It was awful for two reasons; the first is that I’d been drunk the night before and so I didn’t feel very well. The other reason is that the projector was faulty, the fan on the project wasn’t working and the fan was burning up the slides. The chairperson of that session is a lovely man, a wonderful man called John Lukasey who is in Emory. A very wonderful man, a scientist, a good scientist. The relevance of the projector is that the speaker before me was a man called David Suzuki who is now a big T.V. star in Canada and doesn’t speak to me. He’s far too grand! But David had isolated some of the first temperature sensitive mutations in Drosophila and he was talking about this. Of course the irony was that he had slides which are temperature sensitive which are burning up. I couldn’t afford to have my slides burn because after this meeting I was going down to Philadelphia to Fox Chase to give a talk. So I go, “Next slide, next slide, next slide, next slide.” I felt awful. I left that room. I walked out of that room at the end of my talk and I was going back to bed to get some sleep and this very, very smart and smooth man approached me and said, “I want to talk to you.” I said, “yes.” He said, “I’m Matt Meselson. Nice to meet you.” I was a kid, you see; he was a god. He said, “I want you to come over to Harvard because we’re thinking of hiring a professor.” I said, “Look, I’m too tired. I really want to go to bed.” And he said, “No! I want you to come over.” So we went over to Harvard and I was interviewed. And that could have been the first time I met Jim because I was interviewed, not formally but essentially I was interviewed by Matt, by Wally Gilbert and by Jim for a junior assistant professorship in Harvard.
Anyway that evening Matt took me out to dinner with his then-girlfriend who he married for a period. He later married somebody else and another girl came along, an English girl who I knew. She was an economist from Oxford. I knew her because she had babysat for our children on at least one visit to Oxford because she was a friend, this is very complicated, she was a friend of a close friend of ours called Mary Kaldor. Mary Kaldor’s father was a great Hungarian Cambridge economist. He was an advisor to Callahan in the Wilson government. And was one of that wonderful crowd of pre-war Budapest. The economist Oleg and Kaldor and the physicist [Leo] Szilard, [John] von Neumann, Edward Teller; extraordinary intellectuals from the Gymnasium in Budapest. We used to go and stay with Mary at Oxford and this girl who Matt brought along to dinner—so it turned out that Matt and I had an overlapping circle of friendship which is totally outside of science. Another woman in Cambridge called Emma Rothschild who was Victor Rothschild’s’ daughter and is now married to Amartya Sen, who got the Nobel Prize in economics.
Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.
He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.
Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).