© Richard Corbett

Born and raised in the English countryside, where he collected birds' eggs and cared for pet hedgehogs, Michael Ashburner set out to study zoology at the University of Cambridge. It was 1963, and the policy at Cambridge was that undergraduates would specialize in their third year, taking a single focused course called a Part II. "I applied to do Part II zoology," says Ashburner, "but they turned me down." Such rejection "was a bit of a disaster," he says. "You can do something called Part II General, but it's considered a sign of failure."

Then he stumbled onto genetics. Newly married, Ashburner had arranged to spend the summer, his honeymoon, at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples studying octopuses. There, he and his wife Francesca took up residence in a geneticist's home. "The apartment was full of genetics books, so I read them." He successfully completed his undergraduate...

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