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The LMB at 50

Michael Neuberger (Copyright LMB Visual Aids)

LMB scientist Michael Neuberger cuts the 50th birthday cake

The 28th May was 50 years since the Queen officially opened the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. LMB researcher Andy Holding tells us what it’s like to work at such an historic institution as it prepares to move to a new home. 

Sitting opposite the outpatient clinic on the ‘New’ Addenbrooke’s site, the LMB draws little attention from the public as they pass by. It is The Eagle pub in the centre of Cambridge, where Watson and Crick spent their Friday lunchtimes, that draws more attention for the discovery of the structure of DNA than their institution. 

Despite its modest appearance, the LMB is a place with a remarkable history. Two things from my first week here two and a half years ago stand out. The first is a reluctance to venture out of my own lab and into the warren of corridors that have organically spread across multiple buildings over the past 50 years, for fear that I would be unable to find my way back.

The second is rather more remarkable: I clearly remember seeing my colleague Sean Munro walking purposefully with a coffee in one hand and a pastry in the other. On enquiring why the rush, he simply said in a calm voice — as if it was a daily occurrence — that Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had won the Nobel Prize. Venki, on the other hand, had spent a good while just hours earlier believing that one of his friends had put on an incredibly convincing Swedish accent.

It was over the course of that day that it became clear to me how special the LMB is: it’s not just an institution clinging on to its lofty history, but a place that is still producing some of the best research, not just in the UK but worldwide. Many countries — let alone institutions — would be proud of the nine Nobel prizes 13 of its scientists have shared.

In many ways both the building and the ethos of the LMB remain as they were in 1962. The flat hierarchy institutionalised by Max Perutz at the LMB’s founding remains, and the small size of both the research groups and the overall numbers in the building mean it’s not implausible to know every face in the canteen at lunch. With everyone sharing the same resources, collaboration, not competition, is fostered between individuals.

This year, we will all, at some point, leave the building for a final time to move to the new LMB site, only a stone’s throw away. For those who have spent decades within those walls, it will no doubt be an emotional moment. It will be a passing of an era, but it was never the building that made the LMB what it is, but rather the many inspirational people who have worked there over its history, and those who continue to do so. 

As I come towards the final year of my fellowship at the LMB, all I can hope is that I take with me some small fragment of what makes this place so special. I look forward with excitement to seeing what those within the walls of the new LMB building can produce in the next 50 years.

Andy Holding

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