The multi-talented scientist who finds inspiration in far-flung places

Tom Bundell is a leading biochemist who packs a lot into life. His passions for politics, music and travel enrich his scientific research. He’s led some of the country’s foremost research councils and has received a knighthood. His family background fuelled a lifelong commitment to equality and diversity.

Tom Blundell in the Department of Biochemistry (Nick Saffell)

I’ve always got up early in the morning. I generally wake at ten to four — if it’s four I’m running late. I get a lot of admin stuff out of the way before breakfast and by seven o’clock I’m on my way into Cambridge, either to my lab in the Department of Biochemistry or to the company, Astex, that I co-founded on the Science Park.

Retirement isn’t something I’ve considered with any seriousness. I reached the official retirement age for Cambridge University employees back in 2009. But I’ve managed to stay on by slimming down my group and fitting into a smaller space. A fair amount of my energy comes from the people I work with — a gender-balanced group with scientists from different disciplines and very different countries.

But sometimes you need a break from work. In my late 20s I was living in Oxford where life had become impossibly hectic. I’d been there since arriving to take a degree in Natural Sciences. The year I turned 30 I took the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. I was on the train for a week watching the USSR slide past and making friends with fellow passengers.

I travelled from the USSR to Japan and China and then to India. It was an extraordinarily enriching experience culturally and spiritually. I’ve always done different things in parallel — things that on the face of it appear unconnected. I lack focus and I’m easily distracted, wanting to squeeze a lot into my life.

Tom Blundell entertaining friends in Beijing, 1978

On my first day as an Oxford student I heard someone playing the saxophone. I’d been playing trumpet in a traditional jazz band and we formed a modern jazz group. I got involved in politics, especially the struggle for racial equality. When I got a good degree, I was offered the chance to take a PhD in crystallography and later joined the structural biology group led by the famous crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin.

Insulin and its ability to keep diabetics alive was discovered in the 1920s. Dorothy Hodgkin had started her work using X-rays to study proteins in Cambridge in 1932 with the brilliant scientist JD Bernal, but returned to Oxford, starting work on insulin in 1934. For 35 years no-one understood the architecture of the insulin molecule.

One day in 1969 we saw for the first time the structure of insulin using X-ray diffraction from crystals. It was an unforgettable moment. Understanding the architecture of a molecule enables one to see how it works. This is the key to developing treatments for when things go wrong — for example when sugar levels in the bloodstream increase because of lack of insulin.

Meanwhile, I became a Labour councillor for an Oxford City ward. I chaired the city planning committee. I managed to fight off a plan to drive a motorway into south Oxford and oversaw the pedestrianisation of the historic city centre. It took a lot of time and energy. I discovered that politics is harder than science.

Leaving Oxford to travel the world proved very helpful. I was able to get a perspective on life. I decided that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional musician and that politics, though I remained passionate about the issues, was frustratingly difficult. That left science which I was better at — and knew would benefit the country.

Dorothy Hodgkin and Tom Blundell in the 1970s

Dorothy Hodgkin helped me to find a post at Sussex University. There I had my own lab. We explored the structure of glucagon, the hormone that keeps the balance of sugar in the circulation. Moving to Birkbeck University of London in 1976, I worked on other hormones critical to the body’s healthy functioning.

The move to Sussex took me close to my childhood home. My father left school when he was 15 and my mother when she was 14. They had a remarkable talent for encouraging their children to follow their interests. From my artistic mother I gained a visual appreciation. My father was as bright as most of the people I’ve worked with in my 54-year career in university research.

Selective education goes against my principles of equal opportunity. I went to a grammar school but I believe that it’s quite wrong to separate children at such an early stage. My three children went through the state comprehensive system. I was keen that they should go to the closest school to home to be part of their local community.

My wife is Dr Bacinyane Lynn Sibanda. She was born in Matabeleland, Zimbwawe, and worked in biochemistry in Cambridge from 1996 to 2016. Our daughters, Sichelesile (Kelesi) and Samkeliso (Lisa), spent some of their summers in Matabeleland when they were young. Kelesi is now a senior associate with a London law firm and Lisa is a medical registrar, also in London.

Tom Blundell’s wife Lynn Sibanda with daughters and cousins

In the late 1980s I got involved in policy making. I worked with Margaret Thatcher in Number 10. Our politics were very different but we got on perfectly well. I was asked to head various research councils, founding the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. In 1999 I co-founded a company, Astex, on Cambridge Science Park to develop drugs for cancer.

In 2013 Astex Therapeutics was sold to the Japanese firm Otsuka for £886 m. It now has ten drugs in development and one on the market for treatment of breast cancer. I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis — that’s the job of our great team, led by co-founder Dr Harren Jhoti — but I remain on the board. Its success shows that fundamental science can be translated into life-saving drugs.

I’m a great believer in knowledge sharing. My group often interacts with people in pharma and biotech companies, and when I give talks I emphasise that new ideas can come from either academia or industry. Our multidisciplinary group has always included researchers from all over the world. Watching their careers is fascinating. We have a lot of fun together — it’s a bit like an extended family.

In 2010 members of the Blundell Research Group could speak 38 languages

Being at Cambridge has enabled me to put my ideas into practice. I’ve been here for more than 20 years and continue to focus on the intricate structures of proteins, nucleic acids and their assemblies. I’ve had 600 publications and been awarded honorary degrees by 16 universities. In 1997 I was given a knighthood. But nothing beats the excitement of seeing the beautiful architectures of the complex molecular structures of living organisms.

I often remind myself that my father was earning £10 a week when I won a scholarship to Oxford. Apart from national service, he worked all his life in a lowly office role. Even as a boy I saw that his bosses relied on him completely — but he never got any recognition. His experience made me fiercely determined to change things. Social mobility has decreased and inequality is rising. We still have battles to win.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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