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Funding is not everything, says modest Nobel biochemist

Biochemist and Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt on collaboration, ideas and getting used to scientific prestige

Sir Tim Hunt may have won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together for collaborative work on cell cycle regulation, but he was remarkably modest when he met the University Post.

“When you’re told you’ve won a Nobel Prize, your immediate reaction is ‘Why me?’” he said. And it took a while for him to get used to the idea of the prize, said the English biochemist.

He was in Copenhagen for a lecture at the Panum Institute, University of Copenhagen, and this reporter met him at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters .

Hunt doesn’t consider himself a genius. In his autobiography he says that “I was very conscious of my own limitations. I knew how I little I knew”.

The virtues of collaboration

Scientists often complain about not having enough funding. But for Hunt good team work is the most important aspect of scientific work, he said at the Royal Danish Academy: “It is much more difficult to find good people to work with, actually. That is the limiting thing.”

He met his mentor Irving London at a conference, and ended up working in a lab in New York. “I didn’t discover anything interesting in those three or four months in New York, but I began to appreciate the virtues of collaboration. That was a good lesson to learn” he said to the University Post.

He had another great collaboration with Japanese scientist Satori. “I had the good fortune at the end of my career when I met Satori. I almost forgot what it was to work in a good team.”

Funding and Research

Hunt believes people in research dwell too much on finance. Funding is uncomfortable, as nobody can guarantee a breakthrough at the end of their scientific voyage.

“The most important experiment of my life had no support of any kind, and that was good. If you don’t have enough money you just have to think a bit harder.”

He pointed out a current trend in biological research which primarily focuses on studying humans. “There’s a tremendous push to only study the human material if you’re remotely funded by governments or other prestigious funding agencies,” he says.

It’s all in a good problem

It is important for scientists to look beyond humans as study subjects, according to Hunt.

“I don’t think this focus on human material is necessarily the right way to go. So many advances in cell biology came from studying strange things like fruit flies or worms,” he said.

“The most difficult thing is finding a good problem. If somebody else is going to find out the same thing as you are, then why do you bother to find that out?”

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