Frederick Sanger: an inspiration to scientists everywhere

Frederick Sanger, 1918-2013

It was sadly announced that Frederick Sanger, a legendary British biochemist died on 19th November 2013 at the age of 95.

Frederick Sanger’s name may not be a household name but his name is a “lab-hold” name. Within the scientific community, especially in biology, he is someone every student will know the name of. (One of the few big names I remember from my undergraduate lectures!).

For most scientists a Nobel Prize is a far-off dream but for Sanger, his research was so exceptional that he is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for Chemistry and one of four people to have won two Nobel prizes. Despite this success I have heard him described as one of the most humble, down-to-earth people you will ever meet, and an article in Science in 2007 described him as “the most self-effacing person you could ever hope to meet”.

But why is he so famous? What was his work?

Sanger’s research looked at two of the fundamental components of the machinery of life; Proteins and Nucleic Acids (e.g. DNA) , described as “the orchestra which plays the various expressions of life”1.  Nucleic acids are the components of our genetic information and proteins make up the machinery that ‘reads’ our genetic code, makes products required for normal functions (e.g. enzymes that break up food in our stomachs), and makes components that are ‘building- blocks’ for organisms.

Most people are familiar with the idea that protein is found in our food but specific proteins are not widely known.  A specific protein that may be familiar to many people, especially those living with diabetes, is insulin. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and is a protein which tells the body that it has lots of sugar and it needs to store it. In people with Type 1 diabetes insulin isn’t made and to regulate their sugar levels they need to take synthetic insulin. Sanger studied the structure of insulin and worked out that it was made of a specific sequence of small components, called amino acids. His work on insulin showed that proteins are not largely undefined and that they in fact have a specific structure, which is now a fundamental biological concept. This work also helped to understand what insulin is and it is thought to have possibly helped in the understanding of how DNA encodes proteins, proposed by Francis Crick in 1958. This work on Insulin earned Sanger his first Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958.

The sequencing of the human genome made national headlines in 2003. The sequencing of the first human genome has laid the foundations for research into the differences between individuals, disease, human development and evolution. Again Sanger’s research quietly lies in the background.  His pioneering work in DNA sequencing led to the development of the Sanger Sequencing method which was used to sequence the human genome as it was much better at ‘reading’ longer regions of DNA than the existing methods at the time. For his work on Nucleic Acids, Sanger was awarded a half Nobel Prize for Chemistry shared with Walter Gilbert in 1980.

Both his work in Proteins and Nucleic Acids were major breakthroughs and laid the foundations for years of ground-breaking research which has followed. His work has led to huge leaps in our understanding in the basic components of the machinery of life which has far from being obscure and unimportant to the non-scientific community, has led to increased understanding of human biology and medicine which influences all of us.

Fredrick Sanger (1918-2013) was and still is a true inspiration to all scientists.

1Professor G Malmström in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry speech, 1980

by Annis Richardson- a third year PhD student in the lab of Prof Enrico Coen

A few SVC members expressed their goodbyes on twitter:

RIP Sanger


Women in science

In the UK today, only 13% of jobs in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are held by women. When you consider that women make up more than half of the UK population, something seems amiss. Sciences, especially physical subjects, have traditionally attracted males. The huge lack of female role models for young women aspiring to become scientists is a serious problem.

When researching for this article, I asked a few friends from scientific and non-scientific backgrounds to name as many female scientists as they could. My (mainly scientist) twitter followers found it easy, mentioning famous women scientists such as Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin. My non-scientist friends could only name Marie Curie. Considering that only 43 out of 835 recipients of the Nobel Prize have been women, this was unsurprising. More disappointing however was that the female scientists I asked could scarcely come up with more. When asked to name famous male scientists, meanwhile, the list was endless, naming men both living and dead. David Attenborough and Brian Cox are both household names across the country. Dr Alice Roberts, meanwhile, is much less well known despite her fascinating programmes.

Marie Curie- Double Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Marie Curie- Double Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911) (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, we should not despair yet. The lack of female science role models has not been overlooked. The bias of men to women is slowly decreasing as more and more women choose to take up undergraduate science courses. Organisations such as ScienceGrrl and WISE are working hard to try and improve the presence of women in STEM. WISE is on a mission to increase the 13% of women in science to 30% by 2020, working at every stage of the pipeline from schools up to employment.

As important as increasing the number of women in science is, we must beware the perils of positive discrimination. The pressures of meeting a quota can, in unfortunate cases, lead to situations where under qualified women are hired over much more suitable male candidates. The only solution for this is to make sure that the women applying to these jobs are as qualified as the men. And this begins with their education. We should be attracting young women to take up sciences at A-level. Parents should encourage their children to enjoy sciences from a young age, and science toys should no longer be seen as male toys. Only recently, Boots received criticism when their ‘Toys for Boys’ range included Science Museum branded toys, whilst ‘Toys for Girls’ included dolls and tea sets. Science toys should be aimed at all children. We should be moving away from the stereotypes and stop classifying people who enjoy science as ‘nerds’ and ‘dorks’. A recent BBC show ‘Some Boffins With Jokes’ asked if ‘regular citizens’ could enjoy jokes told by scientists. Of course, as with any career, you get some scientists who come across as a little strange. But you find just as many who are happy, sociable and confident, and this is how science professionals should be portrayed.

Gender equality in science cannot happen overnight, or even over the course of a few months. That said there is definitely room for improvement on the ratio of men to women in scientific jobs. As more women are encouraged to pursue careers in STEM subjects, more will reach the heights that allow them to be role models to those younger than them, and this will then enthuse the next generation. As the current mostly-male generation of senior scientists begin to retire, they will be replaced with a more even spread of scientists. Hopefully, as this happens, the mission of organisations like WISE can be met. Or at least this woman hopes so.

 by Izzy Webb- a first year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole