Time is a precious thing for Distinguished Professor Neil Gemmell—little wonder, given the breathtaking scope of his academic achievements and endeavours. Yet he still believes that just a few minutes a day could make all the difference to wider public appreciation of science and technology.
The renowned evolutionary and reproductive biologist has recently been awarded the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Hutton Medal for a career’s worth of groundbreaking research. And while Neil’s openly “humbled” to be so recognised, he’s quick to point out that the “ongoing push for new discovery” has been a group effort not a solo pursuit. Indeed, he reckons that the “stunningly good work” New Zealand’s scientists undertake now “needs to go more mainstream”.
“Science and knowledge need to be valued as highly as we value sports,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a five-minute run down of science and technology each night on the news as there was for sports?”
And talking of time, it’s a mark of Neil’s heartfelt desire to communicate about science that he’s given up more than five minutes of this valuable commodity to talk to the GO Blog about his life and his work. (Thanks Neil! It’s much appreciated, especially in the busy build up to Christmas and the New Year.)
We began by asking him how he keeps up with such an ever-changing subject as modern evolutionary biology. His answer was prompt and refreshingly honest: “It is not easy!”
As well as a heap of reading and “a ton of email alerts”, plus conferences and webinars when he can, Neil also receives constant new information “from students and colleagues working in the [various] fields”. Social media, too, is put to good, productive use.
“My Twitter network often lets me know about upcoming work weeks in advance of publication, sometimes months in the case of pre-prints.”
At the same time, however, he’s aware of the downside of such a full-on approach to work, in particular that “you almost never turn off—there is always something you are planning, working on or desperately trying to finish”.
“It can feel like a bit of a treadmill and the trick, not yet mastered, is to know how to get on and off without losing momentum. That said, my lifelong passion is spending time on or near the ocean—I love to fish, sail and generally muck about in boats.”
Just as important, he says, is spending time with family who, while “not quite as aquatically-focused” as he is, are always “a lot fun to just hang out with, whether at home or on holidays”.
Given this love of the sea, though, it’s no surprise to learn that Neil originally wanted to study marine biology while still at school.
“However, genetics was the hot area as I entered university, it was something I was good at, and I became intrigued by the idea of linking the two areas—if you look at my research there has been a strong focus on things marine.”
Indeed, in bringing together marine and genetic science, Neil recently made world headlines with an environmental DNA (eDNA) study of Scotland’s famed Loch Ness. While the loch’s celebrated monster was not recorded, the project drew the attention of a huge global audience to eDNA and its ability to monitor biodiversity in novel environments. Again, it’s about public awareness of the power and potential of science.
Yet even as a youngster, Neil knew that his own “passion and aptitude for learning” was the exception and not the rule.
“Let’s just say that academic achievement was not widely appreciated by classmates (sadly this continues) so I tended to keep a low profile,” he says. It’s an experience that perhaps explains why popularising science is now such a focus, with genetic literacy a “top priority”.
“Helping people to understand, prepare for and influence the many ways genetics is already impacting our lives in health, in food, and in our environment needs to be to the fore, because the new genetic technologies now emerging are going to affect us in myriad ways.”
And this is especially true for New Zealand, Neil says.
“I do think we need to focus more on understanding and protecting our environment—Aotearoa New Zealand is a unique treasure that we have responsibility to care for and doing so will generate many benefits.”
Educating and enthusing the next generation about science and technology is therefore vital “as we navigate a genetic future that is already changing our world”.
“We can either follow passively or choose to lead,” Neil says.
The first step, therefore, is to tackle our present-day challenges.
“Obviously right now climate change and multiple other factors place us on the brink of massive ecological collapse,” he says. “I think in 20 years things will be worse, but that we will have generated the technologies, some of these genetic, needed to avert the worst of the current climate scenarios. Perhaps in 50 years we will begin to see things improving on that front.”
And while that may seem far off today, Neil’s hope for the future “is for a better tomorrow”, for people and for the natural world.
“Our healthcare will be better than it ever has been, likely with tailored genetic editing (DNA and RNA) being used in multiple therapeutic areas, perhaps even leading to individual enhancements,” Neil suggests. “And primary production will reach efficiencies unheard of—likely using a variety of synthetic biology approaches to literally manufacture food from simple compounds with minimal environmental impact.
On the environmental front, “we will have documented almost all known life using sequencing,” Neil believes.
“We will better understand these living components of our biosphere and perhaps have some understanding of their complex interactions in simple ecosystems and communities. Perhaps we will even have reconstructed species once extinct, but in doing so likely learn through that process to value more the species and natural systems that we have so recklessly destroyed at unprecedented rates over the Anthropocene.”
It’s a future vision that’s as inspiring and as broad as Neil Gemmell’s own research career to date.
Written by Mick Whittle
To read more about Neil’s latest award, the Hutton Medal, and the groundbreaking research that led to it, follow these links: