Q: After a Ph.D. at the University of
Cambridge, you did a postdoc at the
Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
How did it go from there?
A: After a year, the boss went to
MIT [Massachusetts Institute of
Technology] to set up a new medical school, so it was just me and a
we made things up as we went. I
usually had two projects going, one
with Grace during the day and my
own projects, which I did at night.
Gradually, the night projects started
to go better than the day projects.
They allowed me to discover two
very important things, which both
came through collaborations.
After that, I returned to Cambridge to work in the Department
of Biochemistry. And this is another
thing that I think was very lucky:
I had an independent fellowship
from Clare College. I took a fivefold cut in pay, but I found
myself among friends, namely Richard Jackson and Tony
Hunter. It was a loose federation of graduate students and
postdocs, and we could just do whatever we liked. This was
terribly satisfactory, and we had a really lovely time.
We were a bit anarchic and bumbling in a way, and I
sometimes regretted that I never had any proper, formal
biochemical education. We had to work everything out
for ourselves. I find myself reacting badly to this idea that
there are skill sets you need to have, and you must pass
exams to get them. I would rather emphasize the importance of playfulness and of making your own mistakes.
Q: You stood by your results when they were controversial.
This takes a lot of self-confidence.
A: You have to be very sure of yourself, it’s true, but you’re
Q: Can young scientists nowadays
sure of yourself because you know the experiments are ro-
bust. I always tell people, “Be your
own harshest critic because then
nobody can hurt you.”
work as independent postdocs?
A: I think so. There are still lots of
fellowships around, so it depends
on the environment you find yourself in. You must somehow get independent when you are really young,
and take responsibility. In general,
however, a conventional principal
investigator position takes people
out of the lab just when they get
really good at doing and designing
experiments, and that’s a shame.
Q: What was the key to your success?
When people ask me, “What is the secret to success?” I
A: Identifying a good problem to
work on. That’s the most difficult
thing. I also think that, in my case,
behind it all was a fairly steely am-
bition. It’s perfectly healthy to want to win a Nobel Prize.
I didn’t have this ambition exactly, but I thought, “Why
wouldn’t you want to find out the most important thing
you possibly could?” In Cambridge, we were surrounded
by Nobel laureates. We never felt that we were in the same
league as these Sangers, Cricks, and Brenners, but you
realized that even if they were Nobel laureates, you knew
stuff they didn’t, and you also realized what an amazingly
heterogeneous bunch they are.
always say, “Keep your eyes on the horizon but your feet
on the ground, and preferably your nose to the grind-
stone.” In other words, you have to work. ■
Elisabeth Pain is Science Careers’ contributing editor for
Europe. For more on life and career issues, visit http://
“You must somehow get
independent when you
are really young, and take
In praise of early independence
Many factors influence success in a science career. Hard work, ambition, flair, and luck played a role in the success of Tim Hunt, who won a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine (along with Leland Hartwell and Paul Nurse) for his discovery of cyclins, key regulators of the cell cycle. We caught up with Hunt—now a group leader emeritus at the Clare Hall Laboratories of Cancer Research UK’s London Research In- stitute—during Postdoc Day at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. Hunt’s career
demonstrates the importance of two additional success factors: playfulness and early independence.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
By Elisabeth Pain, in Barcelona, Spain