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Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Maud Menten Center

Several people have commented on Facebook about an interview with Matthew Cobb [Reflections on the Double Helix's Platinum Anniversary]. Cobb has written several books that you all should have read by now. You may also be familiar with his name from Jerry Coyne's website since he is mentioned there quite a lot.

Cobb is currently writing a biography of Francis Crick and it's the reference to Crick that's attracting attention.

Watson and Crick had something that very few of us have, which is a very relaxed relationship that allowed arguing and talking and debating and being prepared to have crazy ideas that the other person could shoot down.

This is something that Crick continued to do with Nobelist Sydney Brenner, PhD, for over 20 years. Every morning, they would just yak at each other for hours on end and talk rubbish. And most of it was rubbish! But every now and again, there would be something really insightful that they had seen in an article that they could develop further.

And that’s not exactly possible in today’s world, which focuses on how many Nature, Science, or Cell articles are on a CV. So, they were living in a very different world that was much more relaxed. But I think if we could reinject a bit of that back into science—more freedom and time to explore—I think everybody would benefit.

I think we need an institute that's similar to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton except that it would be focused on biochemistry and molecular biology, including genomics and molecular evolution. It would be a place for theorists and it would encourage the kind of interactions that Cobb is talking about. I think we should create that institute in Toronto and call it the Maud Menten Center after Maud L. Menten who got her undergraduate medical degree at the University of Toronto in 1907 and later on (1911) was awarded the advanced medical degree equivalent to a Ph.D.1 Most of you will know her from her work on the theory of enzyme kinetics with Leonor Michaelis. Michaelis-Menten kinetics is one of the most important contributions to biochemistry in the 20th century.

The Maud Menten Center should have a permanent staff of several smart scientists and facilities for a large number of visiting scientists who could spend their sabbaticals at the institute. There are major corporations in Toronto that could be encouraged to contribute to supporting research in this field but a lot of the support might come from various levels of government. The Canadian model is the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

1. There's a lot of confusion about the various degrees Menten got at the University of Toronto but with the help of a few people in the alumni office we were able to sort it out [The mystery of Maud Menten].

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