Simon Fraser University

Lecture series spotlights Nobel winners

Feb 21, 2002 , vol. 23, no. 4

By Carol Thorbes
“In our pursuit of excellence we all need heroes to inspire us to be the best that we can be,” says geneticist Willie Davidson, the dean of science at Simon Fraser University. “In hockey we have the Wayne Gretzky's of the world. In research it is the Nobel prize winners.”

For Davidson, Fred Sanger, a British scientist who twice won the Nobel prize for discoveries related to protein and DNA sequencing, is a personal hero.

Motivated partially by the desire to see such heroes celebrated by SFU, Davidson and the university's dean of arts, John Pierce, are mounting a six-part lecture series about 2001 Nobel prize laureates.
They want to see the series become an annual touchstone, not just for researchers, but donors, whose gifts benefit research, and the public, whose everyday lives are revolutionized by its new milestones.

“The Nobel prize recognizes major achievements that change how we perceive or understand something,” explains Davidson. “It is important that universities help people relate what may appear to be an ivory tower scholarship to day-to-day reality. Nobel Prize accomplishments in science may help people escape from the pain and suffering of disease.”

Funded by the estate of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, the 102-year-old Nobel prize is the first international research award given annually for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace.

The upcoming free public lecture series at SFU, Making a Difference by Pursuing a Passion for Excellence, will be held at Harbour Centre campus 5:30-7 p.m. in March and April.

Six SFU scholars in parallel fields of research will explain how the work of five 2001 Nobel Prize laureates and the most recent recipients of the Fields Medal and the Nevanlinna prize has made a difference.
The Fields and the Nevanlinna are equivalent in prestige to the Nobel prize.

SFU cell biologist Lynne Quarmby will kick off the series with her lecture Choreographing the molecular dance of cellular reproduction.

Like the three 2001 Nobel prize recipients whose work she'll be presenting, Quarmby is driven by a passion to understand how cells work.
Quarmby's obsession with studying the dance of death, division and reproduction performed by cells in algae is akin to Leland Hartwell's, Timothy Hunt's and Paul Nurse's obsession with cell dynamics in unicellular fungi and sea urchins.

In each case their pursuit of their passion has led to breakthroughs in understanding cancerous cell growth and how to treat it, even though that wasn't their original goal.

Hartwell's, Hunt's and Nurse's seminal discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle and of how aberrations in their function cause cancer earned the scientists the 2001 Nobel prize in medicine.

“I believe that the best research comes from just trying to understand how nature works, without worrying too much about the ultimate applications,” reflects Quarmby. “I study microtubules (protein compounds), calcium and the cell cycle because these things are more awesome than most people could imagine.”

Like Davidson, Quarmby sees the awarding of the Nobel prize as important recognition of research giants. But as a scientist who has worked with such a giant, 1994 Nobel prize recipient Alfred Gilman, she also sees the award as a tribute to all the unsung heroes in the shadow of its recipients.

“Everyone who works in that area feels honoured when that area is selected for a Nobel prize,” says Quarmby.

For more details on individual lectures visit ( and click on upcoming events. RSVP to SFU continuing studies to reserve a seat: 604.291.5100.