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Department of Chemistry


Courtesy Nathan Pitt, Department of Chemistry

Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Fersht of this Department has been named as the 2020 winner of the world's oldest scientific prize, the Royal Society's prestigious Copley Medal.

Sir Alan, who is also the former Master of Gonville and Caius College, has been awarded the Copley Medal for the development and application of methods to describe protein folding pathways at atomic resolution, revolutionising our understanding of these processes.

Sir Alan is widely regarded as one of the main pioneers of protein engineering. His work is now focussed on how mutation affects proteins in the cell cycle, particularly the tumour suppressor p53 – the so-called “Guardian of the Genome” – in order to design novel anti-cancer drugs that function by restoring the activity of mutated proteins.

"Most of us who become scientists do so because science is one of the most rewarding and satisfying of careers and we actually get paid for doing what we enjoy and for our benefitting humankind. Recognition of one’s work, especially at home, is icing on the cake," said Sir Alan. "Like many Copley medallists, I hail from a humble immigrant background and I am the first of my family to go to university. If people like me are seen to be honoured for science, then I hope it will encourage young people in similar situations to take up science."

As the latest recipient of the Royal Society’s premier award, Sir Alan joins an elite group of scientists, that includes Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Hodgkin, and more recently Professor John Goodenough (2020) for his research on the rechargeable lithium battery, Peter Higgs (2015), the physicist who hypothesised the existence of the Higgs Boson, and DNA fingerprinting pioneer Alec Jeffreys (2014).

Sir Alan is one of the 25 Royal Society medals and awards winners announced today, nine of whom are researchers at the University of Cambridge, including Professor Clare Grey of this Department (see related story).

President of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, said:

"The Royal Society’s medals and awards celebrate those researchers whose ground-breaking work has helped answer fundamental questions and advance our understanding of the world around us. They also champion those who have reinforced science’s place in society, whether through inspiring public engagement, improving our education system, or by making STEM careers more inclusive and rewarding.

"This year has highlighted how integral science is in our daily lives, and tackling the challenges we face, and it gives me great pleasure to congratulate all our winners and thank them for their work."