Richard Roberts: The 'lucky' Nobel laureate who escaped 9/11 attack

Roberts is a vocal proponent of food produced by genetically modified organisms

richard-roberts-janak-bhat Richard Roberts | Janak Bhat

A number of interesting things have happened to Dr Richard Roberts in his journey towards the Nobel Prize but one topic that he speaks quite passionately about is “the importance of luck”, which he is certain everyone has, but he definitely has it "more than most".

Delivering a lecture on 'GMOs: Facts and myth', at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai on January 11, he narrated how he narrowly escaped death during the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, by cancelling his flight a day before he was to depart on one of the planes which was hijacked by the terrorists on the fateful day. And the second time he got "majorly lucky", was when he came across a book by John Kendrew which changed the course of his research career and hooked the organic chemist into deciding to pursue molecular biology instead, for which, ultimately, he received the Nobel Prize in 1993.

But, when it comes to food produced by GMOs (genetically modified organisms), Roberts calls for pragmatism more than luck. “There is absolutely no doubt that as of this date, until some other scientific discoveries happen, food produced by GMOs is the future, especially in the developing world where almost 800 million people go hungry to bed every night,” he said.

The GMO process is a direct and precise method which involves transferring the genes directly into the plant. "All the big institutions, especially Greenpeace that calls itself the do-gooder must stop talking against the technology and scaring people. What they don't know is that this particular technology alone, will solve the world's hunger problem because it is not humanly possible to transport and make available what grows in Ireland to, say, Congo on an on-going basis. We will have to ensure that technology helps us grow foods in areas where they will not naturally grow," Roberts said.

A molecular biologist who currently serves as the chief scientific officer at New England’s Biolabs, Roberts is a vocal proponent of the GMO movement and has written to several organisations in defence of the GMOs that has been endorsed by 141 Nobel laureates. To further explain how a crop could be improved using genetic engineering, he cited the example of the Golden Rice, which is produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesise beta-carotene in the edible parts of rice.

During the lecture, he also spoke at length about his own life and times. Roberts is a passionate reader, having been tutored early by his mother. "I avidly devoured all books on chemistry that I could find." But he found school boring, monotonous and routine. He failed his A-level physics in his first attempt, but did exceedingly well in cracking mathematical and logical puzzles, which were introduced to him by his junior school headmaster at seven. "It changed the course of my life. The habit really stuck, so much so that I began seeing my work too, as some sort of a puzzle solving exercise in research."

Roberts is wary of interacting with people and says he would any day choose bacteria over humans. "People are unbelievably complicated while bacteria are simple to work with. They are the simplest forms of life and I know exactly how they will behave when programmed. You know, I am a simple guy and cannot fathom complicated notions and feelings and thoughts."

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contribution in the discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing.

Roberts was presented the 'Dhirubhai Ambani Lifetime Achievement award' during the event at the institute's sprawling campus. He also inaugurated ICT's first innovation council.

Here are a few gems from his speech:

On intelligence

"Sometimes I feel intelligence is overrated. Do not believe your professors blindly and follow what they say. Many eminent people are eminent in their own respective areas. They may not know anything outside of it. They may not be all-knowing at all times. Question authority. That's what I did too.

On luck

"Look for luck in your life. Sometimes that is what makes all the difference. If you feel guilty about being lucky, what's the point of having it in the first place. Instead, when you have a piece of luck, you have to concentrate twice the hard on the next shot to make sure you take advantage of it."

On media's coverage of science

Usually they try to tell a story to get the audience to read it. So, bad news always goes down well and good news never does. At the very end, there may be one good story. When the media covers science, most of them are not really scientists and so they always look for controversy in their coverage of science. Which I am not really happy about."