A man on fire

This essay I wrote several months ago to take part in the competition from The Lasker Foundation. Although the essay did not win, I would like people to read it. I wrote about a man, a very special scientist, whose story inspired me. Please, feel free to become inspired too.

In Swedish language there is a verb “att brinna”. This verb has multiple meanings, and one of them is “to be passionate about something”. For me, the surname of Sydney Brenner not only sounds similar to this verb but also declares a similar meaning. For his entire life and career, he paved the new roads of discoveries related to the area where I am performing my research. His studies on ribonucleic acid (RNA) biology and presentation of C.elegans as a perfect model to study molecular biology and genetics, later brought the possibility to discover the RNA interference process. As for now, there are already approved short interfering RNA (siRNA)-based drugs for treatment of the rare diseases, such as acute hepatic porphyria and hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis These drugs will help thousands of people to live a life with dignity and without pain.

Unfortunately, my profound interest to Sydney Brenner’s personality arose while reading an article on The Scientist about the leading world-known researchers, who sadly passed away in 2019. Since then I listened to his interviews and read a lot about his scientific career. One of the articles described how Brenner, together with his lab assistant and with a specialist of electron microscopy, described a nervous system of C.elegans and published an article called “The Mind of Worm”. The very moment of seeing this title, I felt goosebumps on my skin. I thought: “Only the person who is confident in what he is doing, could name a scientific article in such an ingenious, powerful and catchy way.”

As a scientist, Brenner became a 1971 Lasker Laureate for the Basic Medical Research and received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. However, there was one historical moment where Brenner is seen as a visionary and a policymaker who defined the future of the research. As Siddhartha Mukherjee described in his book “The Gene: the intimate story”, Brenner played one of the key roles at Asilomar meeting in 1975. They gathered the Asilomar because of a call for a moratorium on the experiments involving DNA recombination. Together with several prominent scientists, such as Paul Berg, Richard Roblin, Maxine Singer and David Baltimore, Brenner literally protected and ensured the future of the gene cloning. As was written by witnesses of the meeting, it was Brenner who convinced the organizing committee, journalists and lawyers with his humorous and sharp comments that the experiments on genes can be safe and should be allowed.

In brief, reading and thinking about Brenner’s life and success, I came to the two conclusions. The first one is related to the importance of having supportive, but challenging people around you, as, for example, Brenner had Francis Crick among his colleagues. Scientific comrades may help to discover something extraordinary, like Brenner’s team discovered the huge potential of a tiny worm. The second conclusion is that even death is powerless to combat all the outstanding achievements that one person did through his life. History remembers hard-working and passionate game changers. Therefore, do not waste the life for nothing. Work, think, challenge yourself and “brinna” for what you do. In a nutshell, I think people and passion were the key elements of Brenner’s success in science. Despite that in the memoirs of his peers one can see an eccentric, sometimes even arrogant person, everyone recognized Brenner as a hard-working and smart person. Sydney Brenner liked to repeat one phrase “Motivation is more important in science than anything else, because if you are motivated, you can learn anything.” I cited this phrase in my doctoral thesis as it greatly reflects my life. Five years ago, I left clinical work in Ukraine and joined the research lab at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. My first vague aim was to develop a deeper understanding of underlying magic of non-clinical basic science. My second clear aim was to develop a drug to treat leukemia in children. Sydney Brenner has brought into this world the knowledge about stop-codons, messenger RNA and C.elegans. I may say that Brenner’s activity at Asilomar in the past gave me an opportunity to conduct the experiments on modified siRNAs in order to treat pediatric leukemia today. Many years later I, a young medical doctor, executed his courtesy to reach my goals. That is why I am very grateful to Sydney Brenner for his curiosity, extraordinary approach in science and being so inspiring for the future generations of the scientists.


1.        Mukherjee S. The gene: An intimate history. Large Print Press; Large Print edition (April 18, 2017); 2017.

2.        Judson HF. Tribute to Sydney Brenner in The Scientist. Sci. 2002;

3.        Brenner S. The Revolution in the Life Sciences. Science (80-. ). 2012;338(6113):1427 LP – 1428.

Photo Credits:

Andrew Cutraro/Redux/eyevine


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