Chapter 23: Professor Ian Hickson


“Although Hickson started his career working on the basic biology of chromosome stability in bacteria and yeast, he has long since shifted his focus to higher organisms and to questions related to human disease. This is mainly because he simply finds it more interesting and relevant, and a bit because of the practical aspect that it is much easier to fund studies on human cells. He is rightfully proud of several of his works, but one in particular stands out: a Nature paper from 2003 [85] on a gene, BLM, that, when mutated, causes a human disease called Bloom’s syndrome, a disorder that predisposes those who have it to cancer (Facts box 1). This work has been cited more than 750 times and was instrumental in Hickson being made a fellow of the Royal Society in Britain in 2010; in addition, the findings have become textbook material. But listening to Hickson, it seems that what he finds so satisfying about this study is not so much the wide acclaim for it, but the process through which it was done. There are only two authors on this paper, himself as senior author and a post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Wu, to whom we will return later”.

“Based on the function of the BLM protein and the partners it works with, right from the beginning we conceived a model for how we thought its role in chromosome stability worked, and we developed a very complicated way to test that. And it all worked out better than we could have imagined. We identified a completely new pathway for how genome stability is maintained in human cells – and it was something that we did from the very beginning, from the basic biology. We sat down with pens and paper and said, “I wonder if it does this and this and this,” and then we set out to test that model.”

Intelligence doesn’t equal brilliance

“Talking about Weatherall [David Weatherall – one of Hickson’s role models] leads to a discussion of what constitutes real scientific genius. Trying to define the characteristics of such people is not easy, and they are also not necessarily the same, Hickson stresses. However, one key trait is a fascination with science and discovery. “Throughout my career, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of genuinely brilliant colleagues I’ve had. The person who developed the Nature paper about the Bloom’s heli case was one of them. Very sadly he isn’t doing science now. He was a lateral thinker; he had insight into things that the rest of us simply don’t have in that way. He had no papers for quite some time in my lab, and it got to the point where people started saying: “What on earth are you carrying on with this guy for? He’s a total failure.” To which I said: “He is going to make it big. He is trying to do things that other people don’t dare.” In the end he turned things around and suddenly published four or five major papers and then people had a different attitude. Intelligence doesn’t equal brilliance. You have to have an inquiring mind, to be the sort of person who’s happy just to sit and talk about science for the sake of understanding things. And if you have that kind of mind, then of course you also see things that other people don’t see. Some people just have this insight to say, “I shouldn’t ignore that; it could be really important.” And that’s what distinguishes people really.”

You can read the full portrait of Professor Ian Hickson by downloading the chapter below.

Click here to read more about the book “The Scientific Frontier – conversations with 25 contemporary researchers in Denmark”.


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