Friday, July 9, 2010

Take Home Lessons!

Lindau was supposed to be a meeting between generations whose explicit goal was the transfer of knowledge. But the meeting achieved an objective bigger than this; it also transferred dreams and inspiration to all who attended. I am a young researcher myself and I thought that there are many invaluable take-home messages to be learnt from the life and work of the scientists who participated in this wonderful gathering. Some modest thoughts:

1. Don't try to win a Nobel Prize!
I was going to say this last but thought I would note it at the beginning. This may come as a disappointment to many researchers dreaming and having the explicit goal of winning a Nobel. But such a thought would miss the point made by every single laureate that attended the meeting. I think I can safely say that every one of the laureates would tell us that he was never working toward a prize. Or rather that he was always working toward a prize; the prize was the deep satisfaction that comes from understanding the world, from the pleasure of finding things out, from helping humanity through the power of science. Scientists do science for the joy of discovery. A Nobel or any other prize can only be a happy but unintended side-effect of the work. The Nobel is undoubtedly a great honor and rewards the most creative and important work, but an aspiration to win the prize can only sidetrack us from the great and overriding goals of science that are beyond prizes, individuals and institutions. The Gist is, Don't covet prizes, covet the excitement of probing the frontiers of knowledge. After a hundred years that might be the only thing that counts.

2. Don't count on serendipity, but be prepared for it!
Peter Agre was working on isolating the Rh factor protein that is important in blood transfusion. When he also isolated a curious unidentified protein, he was intrigued and wise enough to investigate this side product. His curiosity led to the prizewinning discovery of aquaporins or water channels. When Herbert Brown was investigating the reaction of the compound diborane with certain organic halides, his assistant reacted several halides with diborane to investigate their reactions. Only one halide did not react as expected. Rather than discard the result as an outlier, Brown investigated the contaminant in the halide that was causing the strange result. His curiosity led him to discover the prizewinning hydroboration reaction of alkenes with diborane.

Serendipity is the retrospective name given to careful investigation of unexpected observations. Serendipity in science needs the highest standards of curiosity and perseverance. Echoing another cliched saying, a Nobel Prize winner is a scientist who sees what everything sees but thinks what nobody thinks. Don't discount the great role of serendipity in discovery, but be prepared to recognize it when it comes knocking at your door. Keep your eyes open and your mind even more so.

3. Work on big problems!
This might sound obvious, but it's not always recognized. The key point here is that most of science is hard and it's all too easy to spend a lot of time working on small problems, time that would promise more returns (and more risk!) when spent on big problems. At the same time it is important not to underestimate the importance of working out trivial details; it's the overarching goal that must be big. To work on big problems we have to do whatever is necessary; find the smartest and most accessible people in our field and try to work with them, constantly scour the literature and look for trends and keep on asking fundamental questions.

Sometimes working on big problems might overwhelm us because of their sheer complexity. Yet the history of the Nobel Prizes shows that such perseverance often pays off. All these prizewinners demonstrated the value of working on big problems, and they all recognized a big problem when they saw one. At the same time they were not sure they would succeed and their efforts were not contingent on a high probability of success. They worked on these problems primarily because of the intellectual challenge they posed, not only for the results they would yield.

At Lindau every Nobel Prize winner demonstrated that he worked on a big problem, whether it was visualization of gene expression (Tsien, Chalifie, Shimomura), investigating important organic reactions (Schrock, Grubbs), investigating the effects of reactive molecules on an important atmospheric component (Molina, Crutzen, Rowland) finding out the fate of proteins (Ciechanover, Hershko, Rose) or exploring fundamental methods for determining biological structure (Ernst, Wuthrich, Michel, Huber). The message from all these laureates was that one should work on fundamental problems with abandon, and let the rest take care of itself.

4. Collaborate!
Science is now an international endeavor. Many of the most pressing scientific problems that currently concern us are interdisciplinary in nature and it can be beyond the capability of a scientist from a single field to solve them. Biology is an especially salient example of the era of multidisciplinary research.

Roger Tsien started out by designing molecules that would exhibit fluorescence but he had to collaborate with molecular biologists to find out how they and the green fluorescent protein could be expressed and visualized in cells. Kurt Wuthrich and Richard Ernst developed pioneering NMR methods but they had to collaborate with protein chemists and molecular biologists who had to purify and obtain the proteins they needed to study. Collaboration not only involves amiable interaction with colleagues from a different field but it involves the ability to explain own problems clearly and patiently to them, and it certainly involves knowing the basics of colleagues' fields. Collaboration is exciting since it enables us to learn about a variety of fields and approaches while at the same time diversifying our own field.

Curiously collaboration needs some human skills that, a friendly demeanor and powers of persuasion. It seems that interdisciplinary scientific research teaches us not only about science but also about engaging with people. Most of the Lindau laureates demonstrated the value of such interaction.

5. Persevere!
This sounds even more obvious, and yet this is perhaps the single most important quality that has distinguished Nobel Prize winners from other smart people, or highly successful scientists from others. Both Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton claimed that the reason they were successful was not because they were unusually intelligent but because they stuck to problems for months and sometimes years. Once we are imbibed with the quest to solve a particular problem then perseverance should naturally follow.

6. Don't stop dreaming!
All the above qualities and traits are simply preludes to the most important one; don't give up on dreams. Science has always been made possible by people who pushed the frontiers of available knowledge, who constantly asked themselves "What if", who playfully sidestepped objections and opposition to pursue their favorite idea. That's really all the Lindau laureates were concerned with when they did their pioneering work. Let's just explore the wonderful ideas of scientific discovery; the rest should follow and we should rest assured.

In the end all we need to remember is something that someone said hundreds of years ago when he also alluded to the childhood fascination for science and nature. Let us be that little boy he was referring to, and then maybe we can aspire to be the grown man he became when he uttered these words: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me“ by Isaac Newton!


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