Laureation address – Professor Iain D Campbell
Professor Iain D Campbell BSc PhD MA FRS
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor James Naismith
School of Chemistry
Friday 30 November 2012
Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Iain Donald Campbell for the Degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.
Science is different, it is no accident that the UK’s premier science body, The Royal Society, has as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ (loosely translated as ‘Take no one’s word for it’). Richard Feynman rather more pithily said ‘Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts’. The whole basis of science is reproducible experimentation, theories are washed away but data endures. The scientific method is sui generis (one of a kind) because (and I will again quote Feynman) ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, nature cannot be fooled.’ Most scientists make important but small progress; it is a select few that do experiments that change the world.
Today, St Andrew’s day, we honour one of oor ain folk, Iain Campbell, who changed the world. Iain is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford (that’s University speak for retired, but in reality it is code for doing work without being paid). Iain has pioneered the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to study the structure of life’s engines: proteins. His efforts have transformed biology by both the development and application of NMR. We are not the first to recognise this truly exceptional scientist; in fact there are too many awards to list. I will highlight his election as a fellow of the Royal Society and his delivery of the 2006 Croonian Lecture (an accolade only just below a Nobel Prize).
Iain was born just up the road in Blackford, on the outskirts of St John’s town of Perth. He recounts a happy childhood but without electricity until he was seven. Quite a change, since his lab has an NMR machine which has the look and complexity of a space ship. Iain left Perth Academy to study Physics at St Andrews in 1959. Today, moral has replaced natural philosophy in the building behind us on the Scores where Iain studied. Iain graduated in 1963 with an improved golf handicap and an appreciation of beer. As a teacher of students, I know that 600 years of such tradition is retained. For the benefit of parents and supporters, I should add Iain’s key lesson here was a love of and an ability to learn, a 600 year tradition we are possibly more proud of. PhD followed B.Sc. and Iain studied with the notably eccentric Dirk Bijl. It was Jack Allen, Head of Physics at St Andrews and one of the world’s greatest physicists, who took an interest in what Iain was doing. Iain along with others built some of the very earliest electron spin resonance machines using old radar equipment. During this time Iain met his future wife Karin who was in Fife as part of her teacher training. It’s a pleasure to welcome Karin back to St Andrews today. I can only imagine what she, a young German woman visiting deepest Fife in the 1960’s, made of her pupils. Iain lists two interests, work and family. He and Karin have raised three children Louisa, Fiona and Andrew and are proud grandparents of six grandchildren.
Bijl moved to Bradford, taking Iain with him in 1966. As is so often the case, a decision taken on the advice of a spouse turns out to be the best one you ever make. Karin urged Iain to go to Oxford and so in 1967 he moved to a job with Sir Rex Richards to work on NMR. Today NMR is best known to the public as the technology in MRI scanners, its use began 60 years ago as a revolutionary method to look at atoms in chemicals. By the 1970s every chemical laboratory had one of these machines. The best scientists are unhappy dreamers, rather than marvel at technology they fume at its limitations. At Oxford, Iain and others began to push these machines, taking some of the first proton spectra of living cells, a massive technical leap. The scientific insights resulting from this work Iain described, in a marvellously Scottish taciturn way, as ‘limited’. Some of the great biochemists of our age, such as Raymond Dwek who worked at Oxford, spotted that this quiet Scottish physicist was revolutionising the study of proteins, his clarity of thought, rigorous analysis and deep intellect made him a sought-after collaborator. By the early 1980s Nobel Prize winner Kurt Wüthrich had, in Zurich, demonstrated NMR could be applied to determine the structure of proteins. Iain in his typically modest manner plays down what happened next. Building on Wüthrich’s work Iain determined the structure of epidermal growth factor (a cell division protein) in 1987. It was the first NMR protein structure in the UK, one of the first in the world and was instantly seen around the world as a landmark in life science.
Iain made a critical decision; he could have milked his triumph and spent the next 35 years advancing NMR technology. That he did not and rather chose to devote himself, a physicist, to the study of biology on its terms not his, is a lesson for today’s students. The truly great physicists and chemists who move to medical biology, answer key biological questions with their skills, they do not wait for biology to come to them. Iain’s embrace of biology is so complete that many younger scientists know Iain as an authority on cell migration and cell adhesion. The Iain they know is the scientist who defined how integrins regulate embryonic development, tissue repair, immune responses and how the regulation goes wrong in cancer. The Iain they know built the understanding that underpins development of new anti-angiogenic cancer therapies. Few I bet imagine him as a man who started out with old radar equipment on the Scores.
Iain worked in partnership with industry for the benefit of UK plc. before the phrase ‘translational science’ was coined. His approach and technology are used in every significant biomedical research program across the world. The multiple generations of scientists who Iain has mentored are found in every major pharmaceutical company, in essentially all UK universities and many other labs around the world. It is a humbling list of achievements.
Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to science, I invite you to confer on Professor Iain Donald Campbell the Degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.