Sir Alan Fersht, Life Fellow and former Master of Gonville & Caius College, has been awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, the most prestigious science prize in the UK and probably the World’s oldest, dating back to 1731. The medal is awarded annually, alternating between the physical and biological sciences, for outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science. Previous winners encompass the most famous scientists of the last few centuries including Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Charles Darwin, Dmitri Mendeleev, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Remarkably, Sir Alan is the third Caius Master and tenth Fellow to have been so honoured; the first William Hyde Wollaston in 1802 and the latest Stephen Hawking in 2006.
Sir Alan is widely regarded as one of the main pioneers of protein engineering. As his award citation says, “He has developed and applied the methods of protein engineering to provide descriptions of protein folding pathways at atomic resolution, revolutionising our understanding of these processes.” His work is now focussed on how mutation affects proteins in the cell cycle, particularly the tumour suppressor p53 – the so-called “Guardian of the Genome” – in order to design novel anti-cancer drugs that function by restoring the activity of mutated proteins.
He was elected as a Royal Society Fellow in 1983, before his election as a Fellow at Caius in 1988. For over 30 years, Sir Alan has contributed his time and efforts to advancing the college’s mission of education, learning and research, and in particular has supported the Natural Sciences community at Caius in various ways.
Commenting on his award, Sir Alan writes, “Most of us who become scientists do so because science is one of the most rewarding and satisfying of careers and we actually get paid for doing what we enjoy and for our benefitting humankind. And most of us don’t do it to win awards. But recognition of one’s work, especially at home, is icing on the cake and makes us feel appreciated. Like many Copley medallists, I hail from a humble immigrant background and the first of my family to go to university. If people like me are seen to be honoured for science, then I hope it will encourage young people in similar situations to take up science.”
Dr Pippa Rogerson, Master of Gonville & Caius College, offers her congratulations: “Sir Alan has had nearly 60 years of association with Caius. He matriculated here as an undergraduate student in 1962, returning as a fellow in 1988, and becoming Master in 2012. We are so proud of his award of the Copley Medal in recognition of his ground-breaking work in protein engineering. His many successes are an inspiration to aim high and strive hard.”