Sydney Brenner, a founder of molecular biology who shared a Nobel Prize for his achievements in 2002, keeps traveling around the world at 84, opening up new fields of research.
How he does it:
He’s restless. After solving some initial puzzles and attracting top collaborators to his team, Brenner moves on to something different.
He bucks the common wisdom. “I’ve been a rebel,” he says in an interview that became part of his autobiography, My Life in Science. “Being a rebel has always appealed to me, largely because I’m convinced that the standard parts of any activity are already petrified at the core.”
In the late 1960s, after helping crack the genetic code, Brenner wanted to understand how genes control the way the nervous system develops and operates. To study them, he chose a tiny, simple worm called a nematode. “People thought I was crazy,” he says.
But Brenner was right—simple was better.
He can’t tolerate delay. The kind of guy who will wave his cane in the air during arguments, Brenner becomes disappointed if new findings don’t spawn a larger project. It feels too much like wasting time.
“I like to have a lot of things to do,” he says, “so that if one gets stuck, you can go on with the others.”
He doesn’t suffer fools, either. If he doesn’t like someone’s work, he won’t mince words. “The only thing that’s worse than ‘bad’ is ‘boring,’” he once remarked about a new paper.
He shares generously. Known for his penetrating scientific insight and acerbic wit, for many years Brenner penned a regular column ("Loose Ends") in the journal Current Biology. He is known for his generosity of ideas and the great number of students and colleagues his ideas have stimulated.
He doubles back to the main mission. Some 30 years after he started down this path, Brenner is back on the trail of “understanding how a complete brain works,” again using the worm as his subject because it has the simplest and best known nervous system.
The breakthrough was obtaining three kinds of information for linking brain function to behavior.
He has no doubt that his mission will be accomplished. “We will fulfill the program,” he says. His way. On his turf. It’s that simple.
— Adapted from “The Wise Man of Janelia,” Maya Pines, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin.