Interview with Richard J. Roberts, October 2017

“I like to see things that have never been seen before”

Here, Richard Roberts is interviewed about everything from his love of discovery to his biggest influences – and reveals a determined, curiosity-driven character. The subject of ageing also came up, which is rather fitting since Roberts joined the Nobel Prize Dialogue Seoul to discuss ‘The Age to Come’ in conversation with Nobel Laureates.

Richard Roberts at Nobel Week Dialogue 2016. Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2016. Photo: Niklas Elmehed

Richard Roberts at Nobel Week Dialogue 2017.

Let’s start by taking a step back in time: where does your passion for science come from?

“When I was 11 years old, my father gave me a chemistry set for Christmas and that was what really got me into experimental science. I quickly went through all the experiments and, after doing some reading at the local library, I found out that I had all the ingredients necessary to make gunpowder! I discovered fireworks, explosives and I just loved it. Later, when I was doing my PhD at Sheffield University, I read a book in the library called The Thread of Life by John Kendrew. By the time I finished that book, I knew I had to be a molecular biologist. And the rest is history!”

What do you particularly enjoy about science?

“I like to see things that have never been seen before. Any time there’s a discovery – doesn’t matter if it’s a big or a small one – I find it absolutely thrilling. I had exactly the same feeling when I was kid and I used to go caving in the local limestone caves. I loved finding a passage that no one had ever been in before. The love of discovery is what drives me today. Actually, I think there’s some defect in my brain that’s causing my constant curiosity!”

Are there people who inspired you and influenced the way you think and work?

“My great hero was Frederick Sanger [awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1958 and 1980]. I spent some time in his lab and it was eye-opening to meet a man who was so focused, accomplished and an excellent scientist, but at the same time a delightful, modest and lovely man who was interested in humanity and did not try to complicate things. He was very much a role model.”

You, too, have made ground-breaking scientific discoveries. But have you ever doubted your work or yourself?

“Not really, to be very honest. I think if anything I’ve erred in the other direction – I’m always convinced I’m right! Whenever people tell me I’m wasting my time, or that I’m wrong, it only makes me more determined. It is, in a way, something that drives me. I do recognise, however, that I am getting older. I don’t remember as much as I used to. And sometimes I question myself more than I ever used to. It’s just a sign of ageing.”

Speaking of ageing – what do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities of a steadily ageing global population?

“One of the problems is how one manages to support an ageing population as you reduce the proportion of young people in the population, who are usually the economic drivers. One needs to find ways to ensure that the ageing population is looked after. Plus, as you get older you’re more susceptible to diseases that end up being quite costly in terms of keeping old people alive. So, for me, one of the biggest challenges of ageing is how we persuade governments to put in place rules and regulations that allow people to end their life when they feel that they’ve had enough. It’s a politically charged subject. Some countries in Europe, notably the Netherlands, are really leading the way in taking a very civilized view towards ageing.”

For you, what are the best, and the worst, aspects of getting older?

“Because I’ve won the Nobel Prize, I still get invited to do lots of interesting things, so age hasn’t really been a problem. If anything, people tend to listen to me a little more than they used to. It’s nice to have this bully pulpit where people will listen to you, but it does mean that you’ve got to be rather more careful about what you say! What’s worst about getting older is probably the recognition of a slow decline in bodily and mental function.”

How can we encourage the next generation to study science?

“I think you have to let them do experiments themselves – give them the opportunity to do something interesting and exciting. Currently, we expect the kids to sit and listen to somebody else explaining experiments, instead of encouraging them to get in the lab – not just to do the experiments that somebody else thought would be good for them to do, but let them really experiment themselves. We can encourage interest in science by offering hands-on experiences showing what it’s actually like to do an experiment and get a result.”

What impact has the Nobel Prize had on your life and work?

“It opened up a series of doors that I could walk through – or not, if I chose not to. I ended up being the director of company that’s involved in trying to fix spinal cord injuries. If I didn’t have a Nobel Prize, I would not have been invited to do that. It’s turned out to be an interesting experience and one I ultimately hope is going to help spinal cord injury patients. It’s things like that which have been really beneficial to me as a Nobel Prize winner – and hopefully beneficial to others, too.”

First published 26 October 2017

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