From the beginning of our career, we receive advice: ‘follow your dreams’, ‘be curious’, ‘think out of the box’, ‘realize your ambitions’. During my first steps as a young neuroscientist, these resonated with me.
But the more I grew professionally, the more I disliked them. They seemed hacked and stereotyped when confronted with science: it is not always a fairy tale supported by curiosity. Researchers more often deal with frustrations and challenges than with dreams and rewards.
When I was able to advise students after my PhD, I needed something more comprehensive. I was looking for inspiring stories and valuable advice that I could share to help them unleash their potential.
I turned my attention to the scientists who have come closest to realizing their adventures by receiving the most coveted award they could hope for, a Nobel Prize. I wanted to explore the other side of the coin: the winner’s life stories; the things we did not know about them; the mistakes and frustrations they experienced.
As a Ph.D. students in 2014, I was invited to attend the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting with 37 laureates and 600 young scientists in the German city of Lindau on the shores of Lake Constance.
A few months later, I had the idea of writing a book of interviews with high-profile researchers. I contacted the organizers of the meeting and got the chance to get in touch with 24 prize winners. My book, entitled Nobel Life and published in June 2021, contains their life stories, their advice for future generations, and their thoughts on what is left to discover. I also got some career tips and advice from them, based on my interviews.
Brands are not destiny
As a schoolboy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Peter Agre received low grades in chemistry, the subject taught by his father at the city’s Augsburg University. After leaving school, he attended night classes before studying chemistry at the same university. Now as a physician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Agre continued with her eureka moment – about the structure and function of aquaporin water channels in the cell membrane – during a vacation with her family at Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida. He shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003.
Seize every learning opportunity
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel revealed the neural memory mechanisms and shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000. But in the 1940s, before studying medicine, he studied history and literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and benefited enormously from that experience: “I’m not afraid to write. This is just one of the things that happens when you major in history and literature. You have a broad education. It was very helpful to me. ”
Have a plan B (and a plan C)
Venki Ramakrishnan, former president of the UK Royal Society, which shared the 2009 Prize for Chemistry, switched from physics to biology and restarted graduate studies after completing his PhD. While studying biology as a graduate student, he also had a Plan B and a Plan C plan for a potential career, including retraining as a teacher and becoming a computer programmer. “By switching and restarting, I kept my options open.” Critical evaluation of skills and consideration of alternative career paths are really valuable exercises.
Serendipity means something
Having a plan can help, but leaving room for the unexpected can also open up career opportunities. Robert Solow, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1987 while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, began his academic career studying sociology and anthropology. When he returned to the United States after fighting in Italy during World War II, he started a course in economics at Harvard, encouraged by positive feedback from his wife, Barbara Solow, who was already studying the subject. It was the starting point for an influential career, advising several American presidents and guiding eight people who would become Nobel laureates in economics themselves.
Even the best ideas can be rejected
The first time Randy Schekman, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, applied for a grant to study yeast genetics, he was denied. But that did not stop Schekman, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2013, from conducting groundbreaking experiments and revealing the mechanisms behind one of the most important cell transport systems. “The grant proposal on this subject was completely rejected, but I continued,” he says. Similarly, when biochemist Kary Mullis wrote a paper describing his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, it was also initially rejected. Mullis went on to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for developing this technique, which has helped solve countless crimes and is at the heart of COVID-19 molecular testing. Rejections are a part of researchers’ lives, and emphasizing them when talking to students and scientists in the process would provide a more authentic account of the scientific world.
Teamwork with students is crucial – as is patience
Biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn made her Nobel discovery with her graduate student and molecular biologist Carol Greider on Christmas Day 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley. Nearly 25 years later, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for revealing how repeated DNA sequences called telomeres protect chromosomes.
Tailor-made cover letters
Martin Chalfie, who helped discover green fluorescent protein (GFP) —and shared the Chemistry Award in 2008 — emphasizes the importance of developing a tailored message when applying for postdoctoral positions. Chalfie, a biologist at Columbia University in New York City, says such applications should show a deep understanding of the latest works published by that lab and may include ideas for future experiments. “My point is that graduate students, when they have completed their education, should not make another effort as a graduate student. Instead, they were to become colleagues. This puts a completely different twist on the application. ”
Last but certainly not least, there will always be life challenges, but the approach we follow when we encounter them makes all the difference. During World War II, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini was expelled from the University of Turin because of the anti-Semitic laws of Italian fascism, but she built a small laboratory in her house to continue her research. She later discovered nerve growth factor (a protein that regulates the growth of cells in the nervous system), which led her to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen in 1986.
The examples of award winners are valuable: having role models to look up to and see how they fought for their success is important to all researchers. Seeing them in action and learning by taking the best from each of them is one of the most effective ways to afford to share with future generations.