Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse visited UCD to recently to receive the inagaural George Sigerson Award. Aoife Hardesty met with him to talk about his life, his science, and the Nobel Prize.
All lifeforms are dependent on their cells’ ability to divide. Whether an organism is composed of one or many more cells, they all need their cells to grow and divide, in that way the organism can grow, repair damage, and reproduce. Sir Paul Nurse unlocked one of the mysteries of cell division: he discovered the proteins responsible for regulating the cell cycle, these proteins decide when the cell should begin to prepare for division, and following that, when the cell should start dividing.
For his discovery, Nurse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 alongside Sir Tim Hunt and Leland Hartwell.
Nurse recently visited the Biological Society in UCD where he received the George Sigerson
Award. Speaking to the University Observer Nurse describes being fascinated by the world around him as a child. “I came from a working-class family, and my brothers and sisters were older, and I was quite often on my own.” Nurse would later in life discover that his brothers and sisters were in fact “not my brothers and sisters,” his mother gave birth out of wedlock, and her parents raised Nurse as their son, with Nurse believing his biological mother was his sister. Because of the age difference between Nurse and his ‘siblings,’ he spent a lot of time watching the world around him, “I walked to school and I passed the park and see things growing and changing with the seasons, and I would see the same with the stars, and that got me interested in the natural world which developed into science I guess.”
his mother gave birth out of wedlock, and her parents raised Nurse as their son, with Nurse believing his biological mother was his sister.
A mantra often repeated about scientists is that they maintain their childhood curiosity and continue to question why the world is the way it is. Nurse has dedicated his life to “just trying to find out how life works,” by unravelling the mysteries of cell division, and this he says, “satisfies a curiosity… and frankly I feel quite privileged about it.” Being able to still continue researching is important to Nurse, most scientists who are awarded the Nobel Prize, are near, or past, retirement age. Nurse however, was younger than most when he received the Nobel Prize, being in his early 50s. He describes being a Nobel Prize winner as “like another job, you’re asked to go here and there, I get requests to do something every day, and most of the time I have to say no.”
Turning down requests is out of sheer necessity. Nurse spends his professional time between his research and running programmes and organisations, including the Francis Crick Institute and Cancer Research UK. His administrative duties however, are something Nurse doesn’t “really enjoy so much… but what I think is: I’m quite good at running things, and if I pay back to society by running stuff, then I can justify doing whatever I like in the other half of my life where I’m basically doing my research.”
Nurse’s research is centred around understanding single celled organisms, and his work features the unicellular fission yeast, who helped him win the Nobel Prize. A single cell “exhibits the characteristics of life. You have all the things, they grow, they reproduce, they self-organise, all that stuff.” To really understand the properties of life, “you get to it in the simplest forms of cells.”
By studying the simple fission yeast, Nurse’s lab is building on his Nobel Prize winning work, and they research the regulation of cell growth, as well as problems that arise in the cell cycle and lead to cancer. The textbook definition of cancer learned in school is uncontrolled cell growth and division, and so the work Nurse has done, in uncovering what controls the cell cycle, has had direct implications in understanding how cells can start dividing in an uncontrolled manner. Nurse explains his lab focuses on two main areas of cancer research: “damage to genes when the cells are reproducing themselves, and deregulated cell reproduction.”
The importance of Nurse’s work saw him being awarded a great many prestigious honours, including a knighthood in 1999. In the leadup to the 2001 Nobel Prize, Nurse says he knew he was being considered for the prize because “There’s a few prizes around that if you win them, there’s a certain percentage chance that you’re going on to get a Nobel Prize, and I had won all the main predictors to be quite honest.”
Despite having won many impressive honours by that time, Nurse felt a great deal of pressure when he knew he was being considered, “The Nobel Prize is such a big thing, and when you know it’s possible you might win it, it gets a bit stressful.” To deal with the pressure, Nurse tried to ignore it, but this proved impossible, “some damn journalist would phone me up the day or two before and say: ‘do you think you’re going to win the Nobel Prize?’ and I would meanwhile have forgotten they were about to announce it, and I would get cross with it.”
It was partly because of journalists contacting him which led to Nurse almost not realising he had won the prize. The day of the announcement came, “and I got no phone call or anything, so I assumed I didn’t get it,” so Nurse went to a meeting in London to discuss funding for a museum. During the meeting, “the secretary from outside came in during it and said, ‘I’ve just got a message from your office saying could you turn on your mobile phone?’ So I switched the phone on, it was one of these big chunky things, and I went outside and there was a recorded message.”
Listening to the message, Nurse was very confused. He could make out the words ‘Nobel Prize,’ but the voice “was very heavily accented and I honestly thought it was a journalist again, calling me up to ask me to comment on who had won the Nobel Prize.” It took a replay of the message, and very careful listening for Nurse to realise the Nobel Prize “was for me!”
It took a replay of the message, and very careful listening for Nurse to realise the Nobel Prize “was for me!”
Nurse’s life then transformed into the ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Although Nurse had been a public figure in the world of science before winning the Nobel Prize, “the only prize that means anything to anybody in the general public is the Nobel Prize. Suddenly you get catapulted into a slightly ridiculous position where everybody thinks that you have something to say sensibly about everything.”
The real problem with such a highly esteemed position according to Nurse, is that “some Nobel Prize winners… start to think they do have something sensible to say about everything! I’ve even coined a disease for it, I call it Nobel-itis. You’ve got to watch it, because people listen to what you say, and if you say something silly, like Tim did, it will stick with you.”
“some Nobel Prize winners… start to think they do have something sensible to say about everything! I’ve even coined a disease for it, I call it Nobel-itis.”
Sir Tim Hunt is a good friend of Nurse’s, and the “something silly” he said, were remarks he made during a toast at the World Conference of Science Journalists. At the conference, Hunt was asked to give a toast at a lunch for female journalists and scientists.
During the toast he said: “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?”
Hunt later said the remarks were made in jest, and in recordings of the toast, laughter can be heard from the audience. The remarks were tweeted from the event by a science journalist present, and sparked anger online, and Hunt stepped down from various positions following the controversy surrounding the remarks. Nurse describes him “as a lovely man, but he sometimes says things that are a bit off the wall.”
Nurse takes his position as a well-known scientist seriously, and sits on the European Commission Science Advice Mechanism, a group of six scientists who give scientific advice to the European Commission. He also sat on a committee of scientific advisors to the Prime Minister of the UK for 15 years. For society to function and progress, Nurse believes “politicians and society need to take science seriously.”
In Nurse’s talk to the Biological Society he told the story of his discovery of the checkpoint proteins of the cell cycle, using his own hand-drawn diagrams, following which he happily stands around meeting staff and students from UCD and posing for numerous photos. An esteemed, and well-respected scientist, Nurse has advised the top officials in Europe, when asked to give advice to budding young scientists, he smiles and says, “never listen to advice from an older person… But the main thing is do it if you’re passionate about it.”