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Honorary degree citation - Sidney Altman

By: Paul Joyce, June 2003

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you the distinguished scientist, professor and Nobel laureate, Dr. Sidney Altman.

More than 30 years ago, Sidney Altman began studying the chemical reactions inside cells. These reactions are required for life and are speeded up, sometimes by a million-fold or more, by molecules called enzymes. As a young scientist, in the early 1970's, Dr. Altman discovered a very unusual enzyme. It was called "ribonuclease P" and was rather special. Instead of being a protein like all of the other enzymes that had been characterized, it included a strand of another molecule called RiboNucleic Acid or RNA.

This discovery that RNA could be a biocatalyst, essential to the enzymatic reactions of life took him a decade to prove. It challenged basic dogma in biochemistry and was widely met with skepticism, even a withdrawal of research funding. However, after another decade, through pure intellectual curiosity, personal determination, and proficient experimental skills, Dr. Altman convinced the skeptics. In 1989, almost two decades after his groundbreaking research began, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Sidney Altman was born in Montreal in 1939, to hard-working immigrant parents; his father was a grocer and his mother worked in a textile mill. His family lived in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. He has said that two events sparked his early interest in science. First, the appearance of the atomic bomb, the mystique around it, and the role that scientists played made a significant impression on a six-year-old mind. Then, when he was 12, he was given a book, called Explaining the Atom, by Selig Hecht. This book showed him the power of science to predict, and was the beginning of his enduring passion for scientific discovery.

A fortuitous series of events led to studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received an undergraduate degree in physics in 1960. His research interests shifted to molecular biology, and he went on to earn a PhD in Biophysics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1967. Over the next two years, Dr. Altman was a Research Fellow at Harvard University. He then received a posting in Cambridge, England, working with leading scientists at the Medical Research Council Laboratory. It was at the MRC lab that Sidney Altman first had the opportunity to test his ideas, and where he started the work that led to the revolutionary discovery of "Ribonuclease P" and its enzymatic properties.

In 1971, Dr. Altman became an assistant professor at Yale University. While carrying out his steadfast research, he rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor in 1980, chair of the biology department from 1983-85, and Dean of Yale College from 1985-89. In 1989, with scientist Thomas Cech, he was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dr. Altman's discovery of catalytic RNA has changed the long-held view among scientists of enzymes as proteins. His discovery has meant the re-writing of the introductory chapters of chemistry and biology textbooks. It is helping build an understanding of how life might have begun billions of years ago, while initiating a new way of thinking in biochemistry, with exciting possibilities for work in medicine and gene technology.

A member of the UNESCO International Committee on Bioethics, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences, he continues his seminal research as Sterling Professor of Biology at Yale University.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you, Sidney Altman, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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