One discovered Ebola, another’s mind was bought by Google for a cool £400 million — London boffins clearly do it better. Rosamund Urwin questions the clever clogs and the big brains.
London’s is donning its lab coat. The capital has become a magnet for scientific talent, a place where great minds — of a medical, biological, chemical or astrophysical bent — congregate to find solutions to the problems facing our species, or simply to further our knowledge of the world.
And our position is only going to get stronger in the sciences. Next year, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse will oversee the opening of the Francis Crick Institute, a medical research centre near King’s Cross. The institute is being backed by six organisations, including the Wellcome Trust, whose director Jeremy Farrar, a tropical disease specialist, is the man charged with divvying up £750?million a year on biomedical research.
So in tribute to London’s role at the forefront of scientific and tech research, here are 10 of its brightest stars.
Bottoms are one of Dr Cliff’s specialist subjects — bottom quarks, I mean. As a child, the particle physicist used to drag his parents to the Science Museum; now he works there two days a week. As the museum’s first-ever fellow of modern science, he curated the critically acclaimed Collider exhibition. The rest of his time is spent at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge, where he’s busy sifting through data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider experiment.
The 28-year-old loves a box-set binge (Homeland, currently). Avoid watching sci-fi films with him, though, unless you want the pseudo-science picked apart. “A particular low was the disaster movie 2012, where the whole of Earth was falling to bits, caused by ‘mutating neutrinos’, apparently,” he says.
An associate professor at Oxford, Crockett’s specialism is the neurobiology of human morality. That means she maps the brain processes that allow us to care for others’ welfare and researches how these are impaired in those with psychiatric problems. She is not, however — contrary to common misconception — a “mind-reader”. “We can’t yet look at someone’s brain scan and tell what they are thinking or feeling,” she says.
Crockett learned improv to overcome stage fright and is now something of a celebrity in the science world. Her TED talk — waging a war on “neurobunk” (the oversimplification of data) — has been viewed more than a million times. When she was a post-graduate student she was also a competitive wine-taster.
A consultant at the Whittington hospital in Archway, Dr Biswas is also the obstetric lead for five north London hospitals. One of her missions is to raise awareness of the problems associated with maternal obesity (heightened risk of infection and increased need for emergency Caesareans) but wants the message to reach women before pregnancy. “It’s not fair to tell women when they’re 12 weeks along and there’s not much they can do.”
In the summer Biswas was part of a 14-strong team who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; they collectively raised £400,000 for Borne, a charity working to prevent premature birth.
A mother-of-two, Biswas is dating the music PR Alan Edwards and the pair are regular gig-goers: he takes her to see clients such as David Bowie and she drags him “to little indie gigs in pubs, the Roundhouse and the Forum”. The band Royal Blood is a current favourite. Ultra-glamorous, she has a penchant for McQueen and Jonathan Saunders and has modelled for LK Bennett.
His colleagues call him “the codebreaker”; I’d go with “the plant-whisperer”. Spanish-born Magdalena works at Kew, nursing and cultivating endangered trees and flowers. He’s also a horticultural Indiana Jones, sometimes found 30 metres up a tree, at others digging in temperatures of minus-five. His work hit the headlines when Nymphaea thermarum, a rare Rwandan thermal water lily that he had managed to get to bloom (a task that had defeated many botanists), was stolen. Magdalena is a conservation evangelist. “[Nymphaea thermarum] is just one problem out of 100 million,” he says.
The 38-year-old has a CV that would inspire an inferiority complex in almost anyone. As a child, Hassabis was a chess prodigy. As a teenage gap-year student he co-wrote Theme Park, the computer game that enabled players to build their own Alton Towers. After Cambridge (he got a double first in computer science — what else?), he founded his own games business, Elixir Studios. Next he started DeepMind Technologies, an artificial intelligence firm that was so good, Google bought it for £400?million this year.
In 1976, Piot was working as a researcher in an Antwerp lab when a pilot turned up with a Thermos of blood. The sample was taken from a Belgian nun in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) who had a mystery sickness. It was Ebola, and Piot was not just in the team that isolated it but one of those who named it and helped contain the first-ever epidemic.
Professor Piot — Dr Ebola — is now the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The 65-year-old was a leading researcher on HIV/Aids and has worked for the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. His memoir is called No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses.
Stevens’s superhero moniker would be the “bone-builder”. The bilingual professor of biomedical materials and regenerative medicine at Imperial College has been internationally lauded for her work growing bone and cardiac tissue as a possible alternative to surgery. She is the first woman to be awarded the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Science Medal, leads a team of 50 scientists in her multidisciplinary lab and has appeared in Vogue as one of the style bible’s “Wonder Women”.
Cancer expert and educator
Professor Balkwill is a woman with two callings: the first in the lab, the second in the classroom. As professor of cancer biology at the Barts Cancer Institute, she finds new therapies for patients and is looking into the links between cancer and inflammation. She is director of the Centre of the Cell, a science education centre. A children’s author, she has 13 books to her name, with titles such as Have a Nice DNA and The Egg and Sperm Race.
As science director of Action on Sugar, this media-savvy consultant is waging a war on the white stuff. He argues that too much attention has been on saturated fat, while the dangers of sugar have been under-stated. “I want to pressurise the Government to regulate the food industry to reduce the amount they’re spiking our food with,” he says. “Studies are now revealing excess sugar consumption increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes even in those of normal weight.”
The scientific grandee of this list, Professor Martin Rees holds the honorary title Astronomer Royal and is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. President of the Royal Society until
Sir Paul Nurse took over in 2010, Baron Rees of Ludlow has written or co-written more than 500 research papers and eight books. The life peer’s TED talk — Is This Our Final Century? — has been watched 1.6 million times. In it, he calls for urgent action to mitigate the impact of man’s technological development on our planet.