Access Science: Boyle Medal laureate invites us into the complex world of cells

‘The world of cells is as amazing for its complexity and beauty as it is for the pragmatic way it deals with problems,’ says Séamus Martin

Séamus Martin at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Séamus Martin at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The world of science is filled with intrigue, excitement and the thrill of discovering things, says Séamus Martin, the recipient of the 2014 RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence.

Far from being boring or all about mathematics, it is part of an exciting quest to understand the secrets of the natural world, says Martin, who is the Smurfit professor of medical genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

Martin is doing pioneering work in molecular biology and immunology. He has made world-class discoveries in programmed cell death, an essential process that keeps us alive. He will talk about his work in a public lecture at the RDS Concert Hall in March. This free lecture will be aimed at a general, non-specialist audience, suitable for secondary school level and up.

The Secret Lives of Cells: The Thrill of Discovery and the Joy of Exploring our Inner Universe is the name of Martin’s lecture. He will describe how our bodies are made up of hundreds of billions of cells, all co-operating to keep us alive. “However, there is another battle being waged within: the constant battle for survival within each of our tissues, where cells compete for limited resources and may be killed by other cells if they betray weakness,” says Martin.

“In this lecture I will discuss our inner world, the world of cells, a fascinating world that is with us every day but that most of us will never glimpse. It is as amazing for its complexity and beauty as it is for the pragmatic way it deals with problems, where death is often the punishment for bad behaviour,” he says.

Prof Martin will deliver his talk and then chat about his work and what he has discovered in conversation with this reporter. There will be ample opportunity for questions from the audience.

He describes the process of discovery as being “like stepping on to the moon again and again”. His excitement is infectious.

Martin was awarded the medal after a rigorous judging process that included a national peer review and a separate review of applications by an independent international peer. The resulting shortlist of candidates was then interviewed in person by an international panel of scientific peers, which then selected Martin.

The RDS inaugurated the medal in 1899 in order to recognise scientific research of exceptional merit, and since its inception it has been presented to 39 distinguished scientists.

In 1999 The Irish Times became involved in the medal programme to mark its centenary. It is now awarded biennially, alternating between a scientist based in Ireland and an Irish scientist based abroad. This year celebrates the work of a scientist of any nationality conducting their research within Ireland. The medal also carries with it a cash prize of €20,000.

The aim of the RDS is to support Ireland in fulfilling its full potential in a number of areas, including science, says its president, Matt Dempsey. The Boyle Medal helps to achieve this as part of a wider programme that also includes initiatives that make science fun and exciting for primary schoolchildren, “cultivating a love of science at an early age”, says Dempsey.

 

The lecture by the Boyle Medal laureate takes place in the RDS Concert Hall at 7pm on Wednesday, March 11th. It is free and open to the public, but advance booking is essential. Places may be booked at rds.ie/boylemedal. Further information is available from Karen Sheeran at the RDS on 01-2407289 or at science@rds.ie

 

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