Gary Skinner always raises a protest when he hears the old saw about Bedales’ particular academic excellence in the arts. “In the first place, science is art,” he insists. “Besides that, the school always had the most tremendous group of science and maths teachers while I was there, very imaginative – Alan Suart at Dunhurst; Don Spivey and Harry Pearson for Chemistry; Tom Ballantine Dykes and Dennis Archer for Maths; Tobias Hardy for Physics and Nicola Taylor for Biology. “I always felt that the access I was lucky enough to have to all the creative stuff that surrounded me at Bedales only strengthened the creativity that is so essential to science.”
Gary had arrived at Dunhurst from Herne Junior School with his father (also Gary) in situ as Andrew Routh’s successor at the head of the Biology teaching staff. “Even the 11 plus which was my first acquaintance with the place was a lot of fun,” Gary recalls. “It was already clear to me how different school life was going to be and sure enough, my days started to be filled with interesting stuff.”
In typical Bedalian style, Gary tried his hand at most things: farm work, the computer club, kayaking and fencing, music and even an occasional part in one of Alastair Langlands’ theatrical spectaculars – all were grist to the Skinner mill. “I very much doubt that I would have had the chance to do most of them anywhere else,” he acknowledges happily. “Music classes with Nick Gleed are also memories that stay with me for some reason. I wasn’t much good at the piano but I discovered instead that hitting things was more my style, so I played the drums instead. You could only say that it was a well-rounded education in the broadest possible sense.”
With his father a house-master, it was not always easy for Gary to join in as many of the extra-curricular social activities as he might have wanted, although he was a regular participant in the school’s frequent camping trips to Dartmoor. “I had plenty of friends at Bedales but I was also quite a shy, studious boy at the time,” he reflects. “Science-based subjects were the ones that I enjoyed the most but doing art and design GCSEs were also very important to me. When I left Bedales to take my A Levels at Alton College, I really missed the school. They were a big five years for me.”
Working hard to succeed academically, Gary also found his social feet at Alton, immersing himself in college life before taking up a place at York University to read Biology. It was the start of a singularly happy eight-year relationship with the place. “I’d been a day pupil at Bedales and at Alton; going to uni for me was like being a boarder and I really appreciated it. Being the drummer of an alternative rock band fed one part of my creative side and we weren’t bad, either – for a long while, we thought that we might get a record deal. As for the course itself, Biology had always sparked my intellectual curiosity – the business of breaking living things down to their most basic elements particularly appealed to me.”
The support of a particularly inspirational lecturer, Justin Molloy, led to Gary spending a summer internship at York in the further pursuit of his intellectual goals: “I’d been studying motility – basically, the biological ability to move spontaneously and actively – and I learned that just by looking through a microscope, you could watch the movement of the proteins (actin and myosin) that power muscular motion. I wanted to take it further and so I stayed at York to do my PhD with Justin Molloy and James Hoggett, focusing on the enzymes that read DNA – another example of molecular motion.”
Gary pauses to consider the vast opportunities that have been opened up for scientific research by the historic discovery of the physical structure of DNA in the 1950s. “The understanding of the double helix structure meant that Biology finally had a physical basis and it meant that every one of us who followed as scientific researchers or students now had something tangible with which to work,” he says. “Interestingly, Francis Crick’s son was at Bedales at the time that the breakthrough was made and he sent his son a letter describing what he had done, which recently sold for millions.”
Gary’s research at York was now entering ground-breaking territory at times; among other landmarks, he developed an in vitro assay and performed the first direct observation of promoter binding and transcription initiation by a single molecule of RNA polymerase. Inevitably, his work was leading him into the same orbit as like-minded individuals from all over the world. “What I was really interested in was what amounted to stitching together the building blocks that make up our genetic code,” Gary explains. “At a conference in New Orleans, I met another guy, Koen Visscher, who had precisely the same interests and invited me out to the University of Arizona to do something practical about it.”
For the next six years, Gary would work on characterising RNA homopolymer elasticity, building the prototype of a digital memory device using DNA and developing in vitro methods for the study of ribosomes, the protein builders and synthesisers of a cell. “We made a lot of progress on the scientific front but Arizona was a great place to be for more than one reason,” he says. “The night skies there are unbelievably clear and I started to get hugely interested in astronomy. That took me back to Bedales as well because my father used to run the astronomical society at school and for some reason I was never particularly into it in those days!”
After Arizona, Gary had reason enough to hope that his next step might be his own laboratory back in the UK. The bane of scientific research in this country, however, continues to be its woeful under-funding, particularly by comparison with many of the UK’s leading competitors in this sphere. “There’s no doubt that Government funding has failed to keep pace with where it should be,” he emphasises. “In the UK, you have to get a lot done with not very much. The £4 billion or so that we do invest won’t keep the best talent here and this is something on which our future prosperity as a nation may depend. I feel strongly enough about it that at some stage I might start lobbying government about this short-sighted approach to R&D.”
Instead, Gary’s overseas excursion would continue with a three-year stint at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where Gary continued to help push the boundaries further than ever in the field of sequencing DNA. “I think that I realised at Bedales that you should never be afraid to try things out,” Gary laughs. “If they don’t work, go back to the beginning and find something that does.” Most notably at Delft, Gary would develop solid-state nanopores as a scale device for distinguishing molecular species. However, despite his continued progress, by 2011 the time had come to return to “green and lovely England”.
“My time away was a fabulous experience but I thought that it was about time that I had my own home!” Gary remembers. “I also thought that going down the industry route would be a more rewarding path for me at that point of my life.” The result was an offer to become a Senior Scientist at Illumina UK, based around twin sites in Cambridge and Saffron Walden. In spending much of his time delving deeply into problems with an everyday, practical application, Gary is now making a more worldly use of his long-held intellectual curiosity. “I’m still curious but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that there are loads of avenues out there to which I can apply that curiosity,” he says. “New ideas; new design; new inventions; making useful things – it does remind me at times of the delight I found in art and design when I was at Bedales. I’ve always loved passing things on to others in my turn; eventually, it’s possible that I’ll do some proper teaching myself.”
Gary Skinner was interviewed by James Fairweather in June 2015.