Peeking over the shoulders of giants

I spent last week in Lindau, at the beautiful Bodensee in the south of Germany. I had the honour to be one of 600 young scientists invited to the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in Physiology or Medicine, a fantastic chance to meet 37 Nobel Laureates in the field and get a huge boost of inspiration and enthusiasm for doing science. The week was too full for a complete overview, so I’ll restrict this post to my personal highlights of the week. If you feel jealous that you didn’t know about this meeting or had to miss out, don’t panic; the Lindau Mediatheque collects video recordings of most talks.

In 1951, two German physicians convinced the count of Lindau to start inviting Nobel Laureates and students to their island for a week of discussions and talks. The main goal of these first meetings was to rebuild German science and strengthen international collaborations which had suffered during the war. During the 64th meeting this year, the focus on Germany is long gone. Young scientists from 80 countries, working in fields from psychology to physics and oceanography to stem-cell biology, came to Lindau to meet 37 Laureates in Physiology or Medecine (although some won their prize in chemistry and physics). The Laureates were the big stars of the meeting, and rightly so – the brightest minds should in my opinion be honoured like all football players and pop singers of this world together.

The range of topics covered was obviously huge. Although many laureates mainly talked about their research, for me the scientific content was not what this meeting was about – we all go to specific conferences to talk about the theories and methods in our field. I most enjoyed the personal stories of the people whose work has contributed so much to our understanding of nature, or to solving big problems. After all, Alfred Nobel indicated in his will that his heritage should be given “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. What kind of people are they?

A few patterns seem to emerge. Every single one of the laureates is a living example of extreme dedication. Many of the talks included stories of experiments that didn’t work for years or even decades, but were made to work eventually through determination and some sheer stubbornness. The take-home message is to not give up on an interesting experiment too quickly; you will either make it work, or unexpected results might lead you down another interesting path. Relatedly, every Laureate showed a pure love of doing science for the sake of doing science alone. If you want to be sure of a great career, make money or become famous, industry might be your cup of tea; the key success to becoming a great scientist is to love the process, not just the outcome. I found this realisation quite striking. Science is often frustrating, and there is a lot of pressure to produce output (preferably high-impact papers). We all need a reality check every once in a while: enjoy the science you do every day.

This was wonderfully expressed by Oliver Smithies, who gave an amazingly inspiring and funny talk about his life and career. Seriously, if you watch one thing this week, make it this. In both science and life, ideas can come from strange places, and if you’re truly passionate about the problem you’re working on, the good ideas will bubble up. I was also moved that Smithies, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ada Yonath and Peter Agre expressed gratitude for the support of their partners and families. Even Nobel Laureates are human beings, and we all need support from the people around us to be creative and do good research. On a related note, even Nobel Laureates sometimes have a terrible sense of design – I was appalled by the number of terrible powerpoint presentations throughout the week, but then again, these people do get away with it.

Some great life and career advice was also given by Martin Chalfie, who joined me and the other DAAD fellows for our academic dinner on Tuesday. Specifically, he told us about the secret to getting that postdoc position you really want: take charge of your own career, and write a detailed research proposal to the one or two people you’d really like to work with. In his lab, this has worked wonderfully for all the students who took this approach – so definitely Lindau DAAD dinnerworth taking a look at. Chalfie also excelled in stressing why basic research is so important for the advancement of science. This is of course preaching to the converted at such a meeting, but I think many non-scientists need to be reminded of the importance of basic research too often. Even amongst my college friends, who are all intelligent and engaged people, I sometimes feel they think I’m not doing a very useful job as a PhD student in basic cognitive neuroscience. From now on, my only response will be this video (which won the Funding Basic Science to Revolutionize Medicine competition last year).

Some other highlights of the week, in chronological order. Our talk with Torsten Wiesel (recording from a different meeting), which was so awesome that it deserves its own post (stay tuned!). The discussions I had with scientists from all over the world (special thanks to Jolien), about data sharing, scientific leadership, publication culture, science communication, career planning… The interview that appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday, featuring an interview with yours truly (see page 2). The boat trip to Mainau Island, a well-deserved relaxed day. Because science shouldn’t just be hard work – there’s a lot of fun to be had, and amazing people to meet!

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One comment

  1. […] the highlight of the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting for me was meeting Torsten Wiesel who, together with David Hubel won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for […]

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