Of mice and men
In the eyes of this Nobel Laureate, mice and men are not that different, after all.
BRITISH scientist Prof Sir Martin Evans was decidedly more enthusiastic when he talked about mice than the Nobel Prize for his discovery of embryonic stem cells.
Every time the subject of mice came up in our 30-minute interview, he never failed to perk up and start to describe them as if they were his little children, all the while grinning like a proud father.
And so, when I asked whether he named any of his mice, it does not take long before one came to mind. "One was called 'Eek'," he said, to the surprised laughter of his wife, Lady Judith Evans. And he had a good reason for that too.
Prof Sir Martin Evans...I'm a hands-on-scientist.
"When we first isolated embryonic stem cells, I did it together with a man called Matt Kaufman. As his name was spelt with a 'K', and the tumour cells we started with was called embyronal carcinoma cells, we didn't go 'embryonic stem cells', but we called them EK cells. It was at the time when we're using the EK cells and we had a mouse that was made that way. So, we called him 'Eek'.
"That's what he said often too: 'eek, eek'," he said with a mischievous grin.
Much of Prof Evans' scientific career -- 40 years -- had revolved around mice. Even before science confirmed that 99% of a mouse gene are similar to humans, he was convinced that mice and men are very similar.
"The work we've been able to do on mice really does have a big impact on the future of medicine," he said in his public talk Mice, men and Medicine, organised by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, recently in Kuala Lumpur. What we know about humans, we learnt a lot from mice, he said.
As far as he could remember, Prof Evans was in a science project or another ever since he was a young boy.
Born on Jan 1, 1941, his first memories started after a bomb destroyed his father's workplace and his family moved to Wareside, United Kingdom, where he carried out his first experiment: covert mixing of sand cement and water.
"We had a few builders in the house and I had been strictly forbidden to go near their stuff at home.
"But I couldn't understand why when you add in water to a powder, it could become solid," he said. "So I experimented."
The experiment didn't work, but it provided much insight.
"I found out that I had put in too much water. But that's quite a good experiment because it didn't work. If it did, I would have learnt nothing.
"In experiments, you need to have the controls, you need to understand what you are doing; but very often the best experiments are the ones that give you results that aren't quite what you have expected," Prof Evans said.
Since then, his scientific endeavour has progressed with variety and sophistication.
From making pressed flower collections to miniature cannons to collecting fresh water fish and specimens, he got his fingers in every scientific pie he was interested in.
In an autobiography he wrote for Les Prix Nobel/Nobel lectures, he describes himself as "a boy who dreamt long and hard and could spend all day wondering how to join two cans to make a cylinder."
He then went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Biochemistry from Christ College, University of Cambridge, in 1963 and obtained a PhD from the University College, London in 1969. He continued his research work in Cambridge and became a professor of mammalian genetics at Cardiff University in 1999.
In Cambridge he and Matthew Kaufman isolated embryonic stem cells in 1981. Later on, he worked with Oliver Smithies and Mario Capecchi to produce knock-out mice by combining their expertise in gene targeting and embryonic stem cells.
"I think what I like is actually doing the science. I like doing the experiments and devising new ways of doing things with my own hands. I don't particularly enjoy the supervision and the writings, but I really like the discussion and the interest. I'm a hands-on scientist," he said.
His liberal and practical approach to science showed when he broached topics on animal experimentation and science education.
As much as he loved the animals he worked with, he still believes that animal experimentation is here to stay, but it should be done in accordance to proper regulations and ethical considerations.
"I think you have to bear in mind that we are interested in what things do in a whole, real, living animal. And of course we are interested in quite complicated affairs of genetics, like what are the genetic effects that lead to the impairments of brain function? You can't tell that from cells in a dish," he explained.
He didn't mince words as he lamented the decline of scientific interest in the younger generation.
"I think that we have very much undersold science to the younger generation. We tend to say, 'work hard at school and you'll do well in your exams, get a degree and you will be able to get a good job with a drug company.'
"Forget it. Here you are, on this planet. Why don't you participate in some of the understanding that the best brains have been able to establish over the last millennium?"
But what makes a Nobel Prize winner, or a great scientist? I wondered out loud.
"I think that you have to have your own independent approach. You have to be somewhat single minded and not take a lot of notice of what other people say," Prof Evans replied.
"There is a certain given determined track, and also a certain element of good fortune. Many people will be doing very good work, which will not necessarily have just that little secret and piece in it that makes a Nobel Committee think it is worth the prize," he added.
An Albert Lasker Prize, Knighthood, the Nobel Prize and recently, a Gold Medal of the Royal Society in Medicine in the UK may bring recognition and a quiet, unexpected satisfaction to Prof Evans, but he is now busier than ever.
Invitations to speak have had him travelling all over the world just when he was expecting a quiet, relaxing retirement.
"I was awarded the Nobel Prize just before I formally retired from Cardiff University (UK), and I have been expecting to spend more time doing this like playing golf, or maybe, learning to play bridge. And we haven't had the time to do it, really."