In Focus
Mar 26, 2016

The Lasting Legacy of Trinity’s Science Alumni

From splitting the atom to introducing ways to tackle Alzheimer’s disease, Trinity’s science graduates have had a significant global influence.

Pamela AvilaContributing Writer
Anna Moran for The University Times

From splitting the atom, developing a drug for combating diseases caused by parasites, introducing more ways to tackle Alzheimer’s disease, sequencing genomes from the Paleolithic period and discovering a new strand of European hunter-gatherer ancestry, Trinity’s science graduates have shown significant influence throughout disciplines in the sciences. In doing so, they continue to inspire a new wave of future graduates.

Speaking to The University Times, the Head of the School of Natural Sciences, Prof Fraser Mitchell says that one of the reasons Trinity has fostered these notable alumni in the sciences is “obviously partly [due to] the quality of the students and the quality of the teachers”. Mitchell believes that the fostering and focus on extracurricular activities in order to nurture more well-rounded and innovative students is “crucial” and “very high” at Trinity.

“The College does a good job in fostering that. I think that really helps. It’s quite hard to quantify but it has a very big impact on people”, he continues. “It’s a thing I often stress when people are graduating and looking for jobs – to stress not just their academic qualities but also what they’ve learned through all other activities, which are so important.”


Trinity has seen its graduates win Nobel Prizes on three different occasions, two of which were scientists. The first Trinity science alumnus to win a Nobel Prize was Ernest T.S. Walton, who received the honour in 1951 with colleague, John Cockcroft. Walton, a physicist, is known for his “atom-smashing” work and received the prize for his achievements in splitting the atom alongside Cockcroft. The experiments done to artificially split the atom were carried out at the University of Cambridge, with Walton becoming the first person to ever artificially split the atom. “He did his first degree in physics here, then went to Cambridge – it was the work he did in Cambridge that got him the Nobel Prize but he came back here and then he was teaching as well”, Mitchell says.

The Belfast native is still one of the College’s most esteemed and recognised alumni, with his groundbreaking achievement regarded as one of the most influential developments in science. His memory is commemorated by Eilís O’Connell’s sculpture, “Apples and Atoms” located beside the Fitzgerald building on campus.

Trinity has seen its graduates win Nobel Prizes on three different occasions, two of which were scientists

Nearly 50 years after the first of Trinity’s alumni received the honour, William Campbell, class of 1952, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his work in parasitology. This past October, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with colleague, Satoshi Omura, for their innovative discovery regarding a treatment to combat infections by roundworm parasites, called Ivermectin. The other half of the Nobel Prize went to scientist Youyou Tu, for her discoveries regarding a new therapy against malaria, called Artemisinin.

“As a zoologist, Bill was certainly ahead of his time, his research underlines the importance of the very modern concept of ‘One Health’ which promotes an understanding of parasite ecology and its interactions with wild and domestic animals, humans and their environment,” reads a statement on the School of Natural Sciences website. “This integrated view of zoology is very much in keeping with the training that we give zoologists today.”

College’s most recent Nobel Laureate already has a considerable reputation behind him and members of staff are well versed on the career of this prominent zoologist. “[Campbell] was a zoology graduate from the 50s and then he went to the states,” Mitchell says of Campbell who received his primary degree at Trinity and later his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1957. When he left Trinity to go to the US, Mitchell relates, Campbell was working with drug companies and “looking at how to deal with treatments for parasites”. He is currently a research fellow Emeritus at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He has since been awarded with an honorary Doctor in Science (Sc.D) when he visited College in 2012.

When Campbell received his honorary degree from College, he gave a talk about his time in Trinity, his research overall and about his experiences in the School of Natural Sciences. Mitchell recalls how Campbell spoke of a professor of botany that had a great impact on Campbell during his undergraduate career at College, reinforcing the sense that within College there is a prominent aspect of legacy and encouragement to be found in the science schools.

There have also been significant historical advancements from the School of Chemistry at Trinity. Prof Sylvia Draper of the School of Chemistry recently put together an external review on the chemical discoveries from College.

Engaging with the natural world is something that a lot universities aren’t doing so much of now because class sizes are bigger, the logistics are more challenging and it costs money

Speaking to The University Times via email, Draper says that “the School of Chemistry at [College] can trace its origins back to the appointment of Dr Robert Griffith.” Griffith was a medical graduate of the university and was later appointed lecturer of chemistry in 1711.

According to Draper’s external review, “the School has a rich history, predating one of the earliest milestones: Dalton’s ‘Law of Multiple Proportions’, by over 90 years, and was in its bicentennial year at the time of Rutherford’s gold foil experiments.”

Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, formally called the Geiger-Marsden experiment(s), was a series of experiments where Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden discovered that every atom contains a nucleus where its positive charge and most of its mass is concentrated. The experiments were carried out between 1908 and 1913 which in light of Draper’s comments, gives one a sense of Trinity’s scientific heritage.

The School of Chemistry’s academic staff is currently comprised of 20 faculty. Studying Chemistry within the school are “over 100 registered postgraduate students undertaking PhD degrees by research, approximately 50 postdoctoral research fellows (including research assistants) and 1100 undergraduate students”, according to Draper.

In the School of Natural Sciences, Mitchell said the school runs 12 degree programs which nearly all have a field component. Students are traveling to different parts of the world to “study in the natural world” and conduct research. These students are “engaging with the natural world”, as Mitchell says and remarks that “it’s a real important experience.”

“It’s something that a lot universities aren’t doing so much of now globally because class sizes are bigger, the logistics are more challenging and it costs money”, Mitchell said.
However, “that’s something that Trinity does very well”. He believes it’s important the College keeps doing it as it “holds our school together” and fosters the development of not only well-rounded students in the sciences but leads to innovative discoveries and advancements.

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