Biochemist At Forefront Of Plant Studies

Having secured his PhD, Benjamin Lichman now works at one of the world’s leading centres for plant product research.

Benjamin (OE 2000–2007), who in the summer of 2016 received his doctorate from University College London, took up a post-doctoral appointment at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. His research interests concern complex organic molecules of value to humankind and, specifically, the mechanism and evolution of biosynthetic enzymes.

Just a few days after the PhD ceremony, he was himself handing out awards when he was Guest of Honour at QE’s Junior Awards Ceremony.

Benjamin followed in the footsteps of two older brothers when he came to the School as a young boy. He was a keen flautist at School, playing in various QE ensembles, while also being involved in debating. After gaining straight As in his A-levels, he went on to gain a first-class degree in Natural Sciences at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he also won the college prize in 2008, 2009 and 2011, and a Davies Scholarship in 2008.

In his address at Junior Awards in the School Hall, he reflected on writing his doctoral thesis, which, he said, comprised 316 pages and 86,729 words. He told the assembled boys: “The whole four years involved working on an enzyme found in plants which helps create some of humanity’s most valuable medicines. You study so many different subjects. I think you are very lucky – I just spent the last four years studying a single molecule!”

The Junior Awards ceremony rewards boys in Years 7, 8 and 9 for their achievements. It features musical interludes which this year included pieces by Mozart, Fauré and Devienne. VIP guests included the Mayor and Mayoress of Barnet, Cllr David Longstaff, and Ms Gillian Griffiths.

Benjamin recalled his own first academic award: a Year 7 prize for public-speaking. Praising the School, which he said had been “central to my journey”, he urged the prize-winners not to be complacent in the future and warned them against excessive competitiveness and viewing their successes in comparison with others.

He urged the importance of asking questions, illustrating this by recalling in some detail the famous story of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. Fleming, instead of throwing away agar plates which had accidentally become contaminated, was curious enough to ask what the effects of the fungal growth had been on the bacteria that had previously been spread on the plates. “And experiment followed by question followed by experiment (and on and on) eventually led to…the birth of the golden age of antibacterials, which saw the elimination of many types of infectious disease.”

It was important, too, not to stop asking questions, Benjamin said. The question “Are antibiotics good for human health?” would have been answered with a simple “yes” ten years ago, but, as the use of too many antibiotics has enabled some bacteria to gain resistance and become superbugs, it is now clear that that answer is not entirely true.

In his introduction, Headmaster Neil Enright thanked Benjamin for attending and spoke of the importance of reflection. Alluding to the annual appraisals that are a standard feature in the modern working world, Mr Enright said: “This time to stop and reflect is valued by both employers and employees alike, giving the opportunity to ask the questions that American poet and writer Carl Sandburg felt were so important to reflect on: ‘Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?’”