I have never personally met Dr Brenner; the only time I saw him was from afar. However, when I heard of his passing yesterday, my heart sank and I simply did not know what to do for a few minutes.
Having studied the humanities all my life, I will never know the magnitude of his contributions, however comprehensively expressed. Markers such as his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002 and being given awarded an honourary citizenship by the Singapore government in 2003 do not seem to do him justice.
So why am I struck by the death of a scientist who, by all accounts, has led a long and fruitful life?
As life would have it, I encountered Dr Brenner while working for Para Limes when it was still based at Nanyang Technological University. Part of my duties was to edit raw transcripts of the various conferences organised by Para Limes before passing it on to a professional editor to turn it into a book. Hence, I have edited transcripts of various talks given by Dr Brenner during the conferences.
Watching recordings of him repeatedly while editing the transcripts had a strange effect on me. As one had to listen very intently with headphones on, it did feel as if he was speaking directly to me.
While most of the content are beyond me, I was struck by his vigour and wit despite being afflicted with ill health. He came across as someone who has always been interested in science, and the actual research and experimentation should take priority. Such a concern is understandable, and it is one shared by people from various disciplines as well.
During the conference entitled, Grand Challenges of Science in the 21st Century, he wryly criticises the bureaucracy within scientific institutions with his characteristic wit:
The full recording of Dr Brenner's talk, in which he went on to discuss the challenges of science can be found here. Para Limes has since went on to produce a book which condenses the main points made by all the speakers of the event, which is available for purchase.
Despite all his accomplishments and seniority, his passion and sense of wonderment never left him. During his last appearance at one of Para Limes' events, he sent down with computational neurobiologist, Terry Sejnowski, and spoke candidly about the development of science and his career.
Over the course of several sessions, he explained how he structured his laboratory and ensured everyone involved took responsibility of their areas of research. He also provided anecdotes about how he treasured talent and skill over paper qualifications. It is amazing that his rebellious streak still feels unorthodox today, let alone back then.
The following is the first video of the series:
It is interesting that through the course of a menial task, I unwittingly established an unlikely connection with Dr Brenner. His devotion to science and endless curiosity resonated with me. The constant push and striving in the human spirit is inspiring, and was definitely embodied by Dr Brenner.
While it is almost impossible to attain equivalent accomplishments in my line of work, one hopes to emulate his spirit in pursuing what is important, and be endlessly curious in whatever we do.
Thank you Dr Brenner.