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Gold medals of MU awarded to founders of Mendel Lectures

Geneticist and biochemistry professor Kim Nasmyth and his wife Anna, who are currently attending the Mendel Genetics Conference, will be bringing home to Oxford one of the most prestigious recognitions of Masaryk University.

Anna and Kim Nasmyth.

Founded in 2005, the Mendel Lectures is a unique opportunity to meet renowned scientists in the field of genetics and cell and molecular biology. The events are held in the Mendel Museum and Kim and Anna Nasmyth were there when it all started.

Mr. and Mrs. Nasmyth received today the Gold Medal of Masaryk University from Rector Martin Bareš. The medal is a form of recognition of “long-term exceptional contribution to the development of science, culture, tertiary education and public life”. In this case, for the twenty-year efforts in preserving and promoting Mendel’s legacy and the museum named after him.

Kim Nasmyth receives the award from Rector Martin Bareš.

Kim Nasmyth, as one of the leading speakers at this year’s Mendel Genetics Conference, gave an interview to Magazine M.

What does Gregor Johann Mendel mean to you?
Mendel’s analysis of hybrid peas heralded a revolution in how to study biological systems, namely the notion that variation is heritable and that its study can reveal the inner workings of cells without any knowledge of their material basis. Given the complexity of living systems and the near certainty that theories based on existing knowledge about their inner workings are invariably incorrect, the systematic study of genetic variation, using methods based on Mendel’s experiments, have been invaluable, indeed irreplaceable, in creating our current understanding of chromosomes as well as their roles in the life of cells. They have also provided the intellectual underpinning of our current understanding of how life on this planet evolved. Due to the lack of imagination of his contemporaries, namely their failure to appreciate and wonder at the mathematically exact patterns that emerge amongst the progeny of his hybrids, Mendel’s work was totally neglected in his lifetime and yet he was right. We live in a world where our motivations are predominantly dictated by an expectation of rewards from our peers, whether this is the passing of exams, recognition in the form of fame, or whether they be financial. Mendel’s life more than that of any other scientist reminds us that being right is more important than pleasing other human beings. This is in fact an existential issue. Getting to the truths about our ecological co-existence with other living organisms on this planet is far more important than short term concerns about our health or our wealth. Indeed, in the long run it will be required for both. 

It is twenty years since you were at the origin of the idea of the lectures that later became known as the Mendel Lectures. What motivated you to create them?
Our motivation was that the most revolutionary set of observations ever made about living systems were conducted by Mendel at the Abbey of St Thomas and that this location should be revered, honoured, and recognized more widely within the scientific community.  Scientific meetings and lectures seemed an appropriate and practical way of doing this.

You also helped the Mendel Museum to recover the original manuscript of Mendel's Experiments on Plant Hybrids, which is now part of the museum's permanent exhibition. Can you describe the challenges of this process?
The manuscript had been removed from the Abbey library for safe keeping but was then handed over to those who did not own it and were reluctant to return it.  The manuscript unquestionably belonged to it’s birthplace in Brno. The process took a number of years and was beset by difficulties but those involved worked hard to recover the manuscript.  It is a document of international scientific significance that should be available to researchers and members of the public and it is right that it is now in the Mendel Museum’s permanent collection.

You were involved in the restoration of some of the rooms in the Mendel museum too. How would you assess the museum’s development over the years?
The rooms were originally restored by internationally-renowned Czech architect Eva Jiricna and the Mendel Museum of Genetics, as it was then called, was officially opened in 2002 during the inaugural conference at the Abbey, “Genetics after the Genome”. The first exhibition was entitled “Gregor Mendel, The Genius of Genetics”.  Since then, the rooms have been converted by others to house new exhibitions and to include space for a school’s programme. It is exciting the see how the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University has evolved over the years.