Remembering Dr Sydney Brenner

Dr Brenner at the Sydney Brenner Symposium in 2015 which was jointly organised by NUS

NUS, together with the rest of the world, mourned Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Dr Sydney Brenner who passed away on 5 April at the age of 92. An adjunct professor at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, he was an inspiration to many from the NUS community who had the chance to work with and learn from him.

Renowned for his work on the genetic code, Dr Brenner was instrumental in the discovery of the triplet code of DNA and of messenger RNA that is essential in the synthesis of proteins from DNA. He also established the use of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model for human development, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. This model continues to provide insights into processes like cell division, differentiation, senescence and death.

Dr Brenner is fondly remembered as a witty and humorous man. “He spoke slowly and precisely in a lingering South African accent, his sentences long and perfectly constructed and often ending with a joke. Insights into the nature of the cell would alternate with his playful inventions, like Occam’s broom — ‘to sweep under the carpet what you must to leave your hypotheses consistent’ — or Avocado’s number, ‘the number of atoms in a guacamole,’” his obituary in The New York Times described.

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye expressed sadness at the loss of Dr Brenner. “Dr Brenner was pivotal to the establishment of Singapore’s very first life sciences research institute, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), officially opened in 1987 at NUS, and had contributed immensely to the development of the country’s biomedical research landscape. He received the NUS Honorary Doctor of Letters in 1995 for his contributions to Singapore. Dr Brenner is an exemplar of a world-class scientist, his accomplishments and unwavering passion for research will be remembered, and will remain an inspiration for the research community in NUS and beyond.”

An active player in Singapore’s research landscape, Dr Brenner was key not only in setting up of IMCB but also the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Graduate Academy and is credited for the creation of the Biopolis research hub. He was also the inaugural recipient of the Honorary Citizen Award in Singapore, receiving the award in 2003 from the President of the City State.

Dr Brenner is an exemplar of a world-class scientist, his accomplishments and unwavering passion for research will be remembered, and will remain an inspiration for the research community in NUS and beyond.

University Professor and Senior Advisor to NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who knew Dr Brenner for over 20 years, said that he was a truly remarkable individual — an intellectual giant who was endlessly curious about things. “He had made so many critically important contributions to the development of biomedical sciences research in Singapore, but perhaps the one that has touched the lives of the most people in NUS, Singapore and around the world, is his infectious passion for science and discovery which has  inspired countless students and young people. His direct involvement in the IMCB and NUS Medicine, advanced research and nurtured many bright young scientists and clinician-scientists. We will all miss Sydney greatly but we celebrate his life which has served as a beacon of inspiration for so many,” he shared.

Professor Barry Halliwell, NUS Senior Advisor (Academic Appointments and Research Excellence) in the Office of the Senior Deputy President and Provost, called Dr Brenner a pioneer in starting Singapore along the path to becoming the leading centre of excellence in biomedical science that it now is.

“His wonderful clarity of thought and ability to identify the key problems to attack and the best models to attack them are legendary. I had the honour of attending a lunch a few weeks ago where he was present, and his mind was as sharp as ever, generating new ideas as to how to understand the workings of the human brain. He constantly underscored the importance of leaving top-quality Principal Investigators, especially the younger ones, the freedom to pursue the research themes that most interested them, often called ‘basic science’. The applications and spin-offs that have resulted from IMCB, the rest of Biopolis and from NUS are very visible in Singapore today. We have lost a great man,” he said.

A passionate and dedicated scientist, Dr Brenner remained the scientific adviser to the chairman of A*STAR and head of its Molecular Engineering Laboratory until his death.