Professor Lord Robert Winston was warmly welcomed by SFX Principal Mrs Stella Flannery and Dr Despina Koursarou, the Higher Education mentor, to St Francis Xavier 6th Form College today. He gave an inspiring and engaging talk aimed at our Level 3 A Level and BTEC Science students, and visiting year 11 students from Platanos College. The talk was equally enjoyed by, and relevant to, students and staff from every academic area of the college.
Lord Winston initially began his talk by discussing the astonishing claim from Chinese Scientist He Jiankui that has made recent headlines. Dr He has claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies – something banned in most countries. He edited the embryonic genes in an attempt to protect them from infection of the HIV virus, which was carried by their father. Lord Winston explained that although the claim has not yet been supported by evidence, it is of great concern to the scientific and medical community given the as yet unexplored potential negative implications of gene editing on the individual, including possible mutations. He also explained that in such cases of a HIV positive father and negative mother the chances of the child contracting HIV are slim and can be avoided. The topic led on to a discussion with students about the basis of ethical guideline within science and the issue of consent in such experiments; the babies born will have to live with the consequences would not have been able to give their permission to take part in the study.
Lord Winston posed big questions to stretch and challenge the students, such as “Can anyone think of a major invention that has not caused harm?”. The audience gave suggestions including the wheel, optical glasses, the printing press and the MRI scanner. Lord Winston gave the example of the laser, discussing the ubiquitous applications to life including in astronomy, computer hard ware, the internet, and of course medical procedures.
When asked by one student what, of all his great achievements he was most proud of, Lord Winston replied “getting a group of scientists to work together as a team”. For Lord Winston, success comes through collaboration.