28 May 2019

Celebrating the Life of Dr. Sydney Brenner

Dr. Sydney Brenner brought into reality the vision to create a world-class, global research institute situated on an idyllic semitropical island.

The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), the Okinawan community and special guests gathered to honor Brenner’s role in creating the OIST we know today. Brenner passed away on April 5, 2019.

The memorial ceremony opened with a beautiful rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major followed by opening remarks from OIST President and CEO Dr. Peter Gruss. Gruss first met Sydney in Germany in the 1980s and then published an important paper with him on the Pax6 gene.

 “It was just like Sydney to put his name to OIST when it was only an idea. He showed that OIST could be best in the world from the start,” Gruss said as he introduced Brenner and his life achievements. “He established the resources and attracted the scientific innovators and pioneers who set the standards for what OIST is today.”

OIST President and CEO Dr. Peter Gruss remembered Brenner. “Some people watch history; others like Sydney made it happen,” Gruss said. “With Sydney’s passing the world has lost one of the most remarkable, witty and hardworking scientists of the late 20th century.”

Gruss’s remarks were followed by several memorial speakers, including members of the Okinawan and Japanese governments who joined to commemorate the impact Brenner made.

OIST Board of Governors member Mr. Koji Omi, who was the driving force behind the conceptualization of OIST, in his speech referred to Dr. Brenner’s Japanese poetry, a haiku he composed in 2002, to demonstrate Brenner’s confidence in OIST’s success from the beginning of the project: “In Okinawa, we see the dawn of a new university.”

“In 2001, when I was Minister of Science and Technology Policy and was developing the idea for OIST, I began looking for someone who could help make my vision a reality.  I interviewed numerous Nobel Laureates, but among all those I met during my search, Dr. Brenner was one of those who responded most strongly to my idea for a graduate university for science and technology. I was highly impressed by his energy and vision, and I knew then that I had found the right person to oversee the long process of establishing OIST,” said Mr. Koji Omi.

Dr. Sydney Brenner giving a talk at OIST in 2008

Representatives for Mr. Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, the Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, and for Mr. Denny Tamaki, the Governor of Okinawa Prefecture, gave speeches thanking Brenner for his contribution to the community.

Miyakoshi honored Brenner in his message, which focused on his work with the Japanese government. “Many talented researchers sympathized with Dr. Brenner’s philosophy, passion and personality and came to Okinawa from all over the world,” Miyakoshi said. “The foundation of OIST today is exactly what was built by Dr. Brenner. It was really fortunate for not only OIST, but also Okinawa and Japan that we were able to have an outstanding person like Dr. Brenner at the time of OIST’s foundation.”

Soon after, a representative for Tamaki expressed the impact of Brenner.

“Dr. Brenner had great influence on the promotion of science and technology in Okinawa. The establishment of today’s bioscience research foundation in Okinawa, which has enhanced the quality of genetics research facilities and personnel, proves the great value of his efforts,” Tamaki wrote.

A close colleague, and more importantly a friend for 54 years, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt gave a heartfelt speech. His speech was followed by OIST Executive VP for Technology Development and Innovation and Vice CEO, Dr. Robert Baughman. Baughman worked with Brenner in the early stages of creating OIST.

Dr. Tim Hunt, longtime colleague and friend of Dr. Brenner, said, “Sydney was a very serious scientist — a seriously good, one must say brilliant, scientist and one of the giants of his generation of biologists.”

Dr. Robert Baughman introduced Dr. Brenner’s business skills as well. “Sydney had another remarkable career that is less well known,” Baughman said. “He was a prolific and successful entrepreneur in technology transfer. He had more than 400 patents and … was involved with the founding of several biotechnology companies.”

Afterward, two more speeches were given by Molecular Genetics Unit Leader Professor Daniel Rokhsar and Chair of the OIST Board of Governors Dr. Cherry Murray.

Professor Daniel Rokhsar showed the science that Dr. Brenner inspired, and is still inspiring, at OIST. OIST researchers have sequenced the genomes of many animals and plants, including coral, mozuku, umi budo and others that are important to Okinawa. “Toward the end Sydney was fond of saying that he would like to be able to come back in 2053, the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix, to see how far we’ve come.  So our mission is clear: to attack science in the way that he taught us and to make discoveries that will delight him upon his return.”

Dr. Cherry Murray, Chair of the OIST Board of Governors, focused on the critical role of Dr. Brenner in the establishment of OIST. She quoted from Dr. Brenner’s autobiography: “I believe that a scientist should be judged by the quality of the people he has helped to produce and not by prizes or other honors bestowed on him.” Murray added, “Thus Dr. Brenner’s legacy lives on in his creation of OIST and its generations of students in the future.”

The ceremony ended with the renaming of a widely used lecture hall from B250 to the Sydney Brenner Lecture Theater. The naming of the hall signifies the roots of Brenner’s contribution to innovation and education at OIST.

Seminar Room B250 was renamed for Dr. Sydney Brenner.

Beautiful music filled the room as the OIST and Okinawan community honored the passing of not only an important figure to the room, but to the world. Brenner was the winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he aided in establishing research institutions including the Molecular Sciences Institute in California and he was the director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. As president of the OIST Promotion Corporation from 2005 to 2011, Dr. Brenner created the path to the establishment of OIST with his strong leadership.

By Tomomi Okubo


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