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UCSD honors the father of DNA, Francis Crick

JULY 3, 2003

By Erin Spry, La Jolla Light

Anyone who has ever picked up a science book has run into the name Francis Crick.

As a co-discoverer of what some say is the greatest scientific finding of the 20th century - DNA - Crick has been a huge influence in the field.

DNA carries life's hereditary information. Crick, known as the one of the fathers of DNA, announced half a century ago that he and James Watson had found "the secret of life" when they discovered it. It is because of his various contributions to modern science that he recently received the UCSD-Merck 2003 Life Sciences Award.

"We selected Francis Crick because he is the scientist I know that best exemplifies a lifetime of extraordinary scientific achievements," said Eduardo Macagno, dean of UCSD Division of Biological Sciences, "and because this year is the 50th anniversary of his publication, with James Watson, of the structure of the DNA double helix."

Crick, 87, has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize in 1962 with Watson and Maurice Wilkins. He now actively works at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. Even with all the years of fame and honor, Crick is a humble and reserved man dedicated to science.

"If Jim (Watson) and I hadn't discovered DNA, which easily could have happened," Crick said in a 1989 interview, "I think somebody else was bound to."

Discovering the blueprint for life was no light task. Crick once wrote that he and Watson merit recognition for a couple of reasons.

"The major credit I think Jim and I deserve, considering how early we were in our research careers, is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it," he wrote. "It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold."

Crick was the recipient of the first UCSD Lifetime Achievement in the Life Sciences Award. Although it's no Nobel Prize, Kim McDonald, the director of Science Communication at UCSD, said the university is very well respected. In fact, the same journal Crick and Watson published their 1953 DNA discovery in, Nature Magazine, commented on UCSD in their 2001 yearbook of science and technology.

"They cited us as one of the 10 most powerful research universities in the United States," said McDonald.

Several of the programs in the biology department recently won top ratings in a National Research Council report as well. Macagno said they have high status because they find outstanding scholarly and scientific talent and recruit it to the campus.

"I thought it was time for us to demonstrate our good taste by recognizing those among our peers who exemplify the highest scientific achievement by an individual," Macagno said.

The $250,000 award was sponsored by Merck Research Laboratories in La Jolla. Crick was a clear candidate as the first recipient, as he's done much for science that has in turn done much for research at UCSD.

"Francis Crick is an extraordinarily imaginative and creative man," said Macagno, "and we are fortunate that he chose the biological sciences as his playing field instead of something like soccer, where he probably would have been another Beckham."

Macagno said the uncovering of the double helical structure of DNA truly changed the face of scientific research. "His discovery, with Watson, ranks up there with the discoveries of a select few who have provided punctuation marks in the history of science: There is the time before Crick and Watson, and then there is the time after their discovery."

He said it's not as if Crick discovered DNA in 1953 and that was it; Crick truly does deserve an award that honors a lifetime of achievement.

"What makes Francis even more worthy of special recognition is that he has maintained, since that momentous revelation, a high level of intellectual commitment to science and the understanding of nature's deepest secrets," said Macagno.

Crick has been doing brain research at the Salk Institute since 1977. His work in the neurosciences is still being published.

"The problem that I would most dearly like to see understood, but I am not sure that will happen so soon, is the problem of consciousness and what makes us aware and so on," Crick said in the 1989 interview.

He doesn't know if his research will end up being as definitive as the discovery of DNA, but he knows that it will further understanding that may one day lead to such a finding. His modesty was exemplified in his response to UCSD's award: a simple, "I am honored. Thank you."

Macagno claimed the decision was "obvious in a few milliseconds" on who to give the Lifetime Achievement in the Life Sciences award to. "You might say that Francis is a scientist's scientist, whose contributions have impacted all the fields of the life sciences."

Copyright 2003 La Jolla Light

Originally published on July 3rd, 2003 at http://www.lajollalight.com/2003/07/03/n030703ucsd_crick.html