Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Professor Anthony Russell Clarke  1959 – 2016

Anyone who has completed a doctoral thesis will testify to the almost parental like relationship a PhD supervisor has with their students. And so it is with great sadness that I heard my PhD supervisor Professor Anthony Russell Clarke, aged just 57, had passed away this week.

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Tony Clarke. Photo Credit. Emma Cordwell

To his friends, students and colleagues Tony Clarke was chaos incarnate. Anyone who worked with him can testify to the apparent disarray of his lab and life. The humdrum cycle of the working week didn’t impinge on Tony’s habits. For Tony there was no such thing as ‘work/life balance’, there was just Life. Sometimes the most appropriate thing to do with life was to head out to sea on his beloved boat, at other times the lab was the place to be. His wayward lifestyle made Tony a challenging person to work with; society doesn’t care for chaos, it prefers tidy plans, filed reports and scheduled meetings.

And so to many it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint how or why his group and indeed his mind worked so productively. It appeared to the outsider that disorder reigned. In fact true chaos ruled; chaos from which, as in nature itself, beauty and order emerges. Of course something is needed to trigger the emergence of order from a chaotic system. And in Tony’s case the attractor around which order condensed was his unwavering insistence on experimental rigour and reproducibility.

Inspiration, creativity, curiosity; Tony had these in spades. Everyone who ever worked with him couldn’t help but admire his intellect, wit, charm and passion. And so they overlooked, as best they could, his social transgressions. Most of his exasperated superiors let him get on with his research, content with his prolific outputs, the wise garnered his genius. Meanwhile his PhD and post-docs rallied around trying to keep his admin on track by digging out the most important forms and documents hidden in his office’s archaeological filing system (the deeper in a stack, the older the documents). This remained a workable system threatened only by the occasional  tectonic movements that disrupted the order.

Tony was an outstanding scientist. He received a SERC Personal Fellowship at 26, a Lister Fellowship at 36 and a personal chair at 41. Churning out seminal work in enzymology, protein engineering, protein folding and prion disease throughout his career. He retired through ill health at 55 with 183 papers, including 4 in Nature and 2 in Science, and an H-index of 49 under his belt.  But the numbers don’t do his achievements justice, his real legacy are the results of his infectious passion for science. He showed us that curiosity was key, that it was the exploratory process that was the interesting bit. Those that had the honour to work alongside him (for he always treated his charges as equals) are left with a life-long love of discovery. Tony burnt out early (his fondness for cigarette and a liquid diet hardly helped) but those of us whom he took along for the ride will benefit from his energy throughout our lives and careers.

It is perhaps worth noting that within hours of his death the hundreds of people whose lives he touched, spread as they were over decades of scientific discovery and thousands of miles, had all learned of his passing. The “Clarke-collective” had begun to grieve.

The world is a far less interesting place without Tony Clarke. His family, friends, students and colleagues will miss him greatly.

“We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison” Marcel Proust.



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