Date Posted... Feb 18th 2020
Professor Laurence Hurst CO83 is is a leading authority on the evolution of genetic systems.
This is an edited extract feature which originally appeared in the 2016-2017 edition of The Truronian.
Fellow of The Royal Society (FRS) and President of the Genetics Society 2018-2021.
Laurence Daniel Hurst (born 1965) FMedSci FRS is a Professor of Evolutionary Genetics in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Bath and the Director of the Milner Centre for Evolution and the President of the Genetics Society, one of the world’s oldest such societies, celebrating its centenary in 2019. He is a leading authority on the evolution of genetic systems. Professor Hurst attended Truro School from 1976 to 1983 and completed his Bachelor of Arts in Natural Sciences (Zoology) at Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1987. After a year at Harvard University he returned to the UK, and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Oxford in 1991. Prof Hurst was a Royal Society Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge from 1993 to 1996 and has been a Professor at the University of Bath since 1997. He says: My research interests cover a broad span of evolution, genetics and genomics. My group dominantly use computational and mathematical techniques to understand the way genes and genomes evolve.
We asked Professor Hurst what led him into this field: It took me to my second year at university to realise that I was most interested in “why” questions rather than “how” questions. Why questions in biology are about evolution. I also realised that I gravitate towards simple systems as these we have a hope to address. In this regard I could never be a neurobiologist – far too complex. So understanding gene and genome evolution became a natural home. I was fortunate that at the same time the amount of data was increasing at an astonishingly fast rate, meaning that, if you are careful enough, you can get quite robust answers to quite profound questions (and not everyone can say that).
Professor Hurst recalls his time at Truro School: I threw the javelin at school and held some records for a while. Other than that I played football and cricket but not in any of the senior teams. I was quite active in the choir and in the school plays – there may be some very embarrassing photos from those!
Did he always love science at school? Very much so. I liked the fact that in maths and science there was a right and a wrong answer. Even in primary school it was clear that I had a brain for science. Early on I was fascinated by marine biology and fish. This gave way to a fascination with psychology. But eventually I started to settle on biology, but still unsure where my interests lay. I thought medicine for a bit, then biochemistry. I was fortunate not to have to decide before going to University as my course left things rather open.
Professor Hurst has a very impressive list of awards and honours to his name spanning his career but 2015 was a particularly momentous year; elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences recognising the impact of his work into the nature of genome structure. We believe Professor Hurst is the first Truro School Former Pupil to receive the prestigious award of Fellow of The Royal Society (FRS).
This is an award and fellowship granted by the Royal Society of London to individuals the society judges to have made a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science. Fellow of the Academy of Medical Science (FMedSci); the comparator to the royal society for medically related folks.
His recent accolades demonstrate the impact of his work into the nature of genome structure. They follow a long career of research in his field and his work has recently been applied to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cystic fibrosis and cancer and found to be deeply insightful.
In 2018 Professor Hurst took on his new role as President of The Genetics Society. Past presidents include Nobel Prize winners and many of the past century’s most influential geneticists. Professor Hurst explained: It will be my responsibility to steer the society for 3 years from 2018. I’m very interested in developing the society’s connections with public engagement and with schools. Among the more enjoyable tasks I get to present several medals and awards – including The Genetics Society Medal which I was awarded a few years ago. One medal (The Mendel Medal) is at the President’s discretion.
How did he feel to receive these latest accolades? When I received the letter saying that I had been elected to be a Fellow of The Royal Society, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was thrilled to bits. This is a really wonderful accolade. When I signed the Charter book I was permitted to also have a look at the signatures of other Fellows before me. I asked to look at Darwin’s (naturally), while my daughter wanted to see Turing’s. It is quite humbling to be in such company.
We asked how he likes to spend his leisure time and whether manages to return to Cornwall very often? Not as often as I should as often as I would like. My parents still live in Truro, so I try and visit at least once a year. Leisure time – what is that? I have a bit too much on my plate, but walking the dogs is excellent therapy.
During one of his precious visits to Cornwall Professor Hurst has very kindly offered to return to Truro School to deliver a lecture and is liaising with Sarah Finnegan, Head of Biology. Sarah told us: Since I met Professor Hurst at a meeting for Heads of Biology in the South-West he has be nothing but helpful. Genetics is an incredibly complex subject and he has offered advice on some brilliant, delving questions posed by our students. He has also supplied us with extension reading material to enhance both our and their understanding of this field. His expertise and willingness to use it to help us in educating young minds provides incredible opportunity.