Tim Hunt’s Life Shows, Can’t Tell Where Ideas Will Come From

column, Contradictheory, Dzof Azmi, Living, Malaysia, scientists, STEM

I like walking in strange places. I’ve mentioned this before, I’m sure, but when I’m in a new city, I try to walk where I need to go instead of taking a taxi. When I walk back, I take a different route. I find you notice more when you walk, even if it’s slower. You get more surprises.

Even when I am in Singapore, I prefer to walk, although I must confess I took the bus to attend the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) this year, partly because I was rushing from one place to another that week. But it was all interesting.

According to the brochure, the GYSS is “a gathering of young researchers worldwide for a chance to interact with eminent scientists”. I felt like a bit of a fraud of course, seeing that I’m neither “young” nor a “researcher”. But I was interested in listening to some very, very clever people talk about their work and their lives.

One such presenter was Sir Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for his role in identifying the mechanism behind cell division.

He had studied at the University of Cambridge where (due to his lab burning down, of all things) he shared a tea room frequented by, among others, Francis Crick, Fred Sanger, and John Gurdon. As afternoon chats go, you could do worse than have them with past and future Nobel Prize winners.

It was against this social background that, in 1976, he would lend a bicycle to somebody he later found out was the director at the renowned Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the United States. Hunt was invited to teach there in the summers, and in their free time lecturers were invited to observe cell division in sea urchin eggs.

At the time, researchers knew something was causing cells to divide, but what exactly was still a mystery. In 1982, Hunt decided to just do a simple experiment to see whether there was a difference in how properly fertilised sea urchin eggs divided, compared with those that were parthenogenetically activated (made to divide without fertilization).

What he found quite by accident was that there was a protein that was highly abundant at the beginning, but which then gradually disappeared when the egg divided. The amount of this protein would then rise until a certain point when the cell divided again, and the process continued. This was bizarre, because at the time nobody believed that proteins could just disappear.

The next evening, Hunt mentioned this to a fellow researcher at a wine and cheese party who coincidentally was finding consistent results in his experiment with frog eggs. Hunt wrote a paper hurriedly presenting his results, calling the protein cyclin. However, the paper wasn’t well received by the community at large. One reviewer wrote, “This is wild speculation, based on faulty logic”. For five years after his paper was published, it was ignored, uncited and unnoticed.

Hunt kept pressing at it. And then in 1986, an experiment at the University of California in Berkeley was conducted with messenger RNA (mRNA) for cyclin (the building blocks of the protein, as it were). When mRNA from a clam was injected into frog eggs, it would make the frog eggs mature. So cyclin was necessary for cell division to occur.

Further research would then find cyclin mRNA in frogs, and eventually also in humans.

Finally, in 2001, Hunt was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with others for identifying how cells divide.

This was only one of several talks I attended that week. But they all shared similar ideas about the nature of innovation, and in particular, when innovation then leads to brilliance.

Firstly, it is almost always a set of accidents and coincidences that are shepherded forward by somebody who sees significance in the results. Being right about your hunch is the “genius” part of the equation. But the point is, innovation is rarely a straight line that can be predicted.

Secondly, science is an accumulation of ideas from a community, rather than the brilliance of an individual. You don’t even know sometimes when a shared idea will bear fruit, be it from a shared bicycle or a cheese and wine party.

Thirdly, there needs to be a sense of self-belief fuelled by passion. I haven’t captured it adequately in my writing, but Hunt exhibited an excitement when giving his talk, even though it’s almost half a century after the event.

So what’s my point? Malaysia is keen to move up the value chain, to go from being an assembler and implementer to an innovator. That’s what the Multimedia Super Corridor was about, that’s what the Economic Transformation Programme tried to do, and I wait with bated breath for what our Finance Minister will propose soon (and it’d better be soon, because we need to run just to keep in the same place).

Sometimes, it feels like we are forcing innovation to happen. We tell university lecturers they must produce a certain number of published papers. We throw money at young entrepreneurs.

But do we tell young Malaysians these three things: You should enjoy the work for what it is even if you fail; you should seek out like-minded people and share the excitement and glory instead of trying to win it all for yourself; and you should do that one thing you really believe in, even if it can seem pointless to others?

Concrete deliverables for grants, KPIs and reward-based incentives for achievement are anathema to these ideas. We put them in place because we believe that we should reward success more than the effort behind it.

The risk is that this creates blinkers to what else is out there. Of course, it’s all about balance. But in principle, I think we are better off encouraging more people to take an exploratory walk that suits their nature than to push them towards some perceived, ill-defined destination.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.

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