Michael Ashburner on Syndey Brenner
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

I got to know Sydney very well quite early because in the ‘60s the Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge couldn’t get graduate students, so they used to have seminars in the evening as a recruiting ground for undergraduates. In my year, three of us applied to do Ph.D.s with Sydney. There’s myself, Steve Martin who is now in Berkeley, and Brigid Hogan who has, I think, just moved to Duke. She was at Vanderbilt. We all went to work there during vacations so it becomes a test. I worked on the ________ experiment, which was the really famous experiment which proved the triplet code [of protein translation?]… I worked there I think two vacations with Sydney and got to know Sydney quite well then: but he didn’t take me. He said “no” to me. He said “no” to Brigid and he took Steve. It’s okay. All three of us had done well. Actually, I met Sydney many years later. Talking about chance, I met him in an airport when we’re both snowed in. He was there and I was there. We got quite drunk together and he agreed it was a very good thing that he didn’t take me as a graduate student because we’re both fairly strong personalities.

You had to be there. Sydney is extraordinary. I think [that] Sydney is probably the cleverest person, I know, the cleverest scientist I ever met. But it’s more than that. He achieves things. He gets things done. There are brilliant scientists around. Sometimes they are too clever and they never actually do anything because they think of an experiment and they immediately think of all the reasons why either the experiment won’t work or even if it does work, it won’t actually settle the question. They don’t do anything. I had a postdoc like that once. It’s very annoying and you want to strangle them. You say, “just do the bloody experiment. It’s quicker than talking about it. Get on with it!” This guy wouldn’t.

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).

Michael Ashburner