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So you want to be a scientist

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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LINDAU, Germany—Play hard. Learn to explain what you do to people who know nothing about science. Put your collaborators’ needs first. A Thursday panel here at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures at Lindau gave young scientists tips—sometimes counterintuitive—about what it takes to succeed.

Play Hard. “I really don’t think you have to work hard,” said Oliver Smithies, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007, whose charming lecture earlier in the week showed many pages of handwritten notes jotted over five decades, often dated on Saturday mornings. “You should choose a field of work that is not work, that is so fun” that you won’t mind the time it takes. Added John C. Mather (2006 Nobel in Physics), “Since childhood I dreamed of building telescopes and I’ve continued to pursue that.”

Smithies also offered some more relaxed rules for his Saturday mornings. “I would do experiments where I didn’t have to weigh anything. I would use a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he said to appreciative chuckles. Some of those more casual Saturday experiments proved the most important over his career.

Learn to Translate What You Do for Others. To succeed in science, the Nobelists agreed, you have to persuade others that what you’re doing is important. “Part of it is a matter of thinking logically, so you can see how things fit together,” said Mather, “but another is to convey that to other people.” Practice helps. “Try it [a talk] with your family and friends.   Seek metaphors and similes and ways to say, ‘This is like that.’ But if you try to persuade them with too much information, it confuses people. A small story told well is better than a big story with lots of detail told poorly.”

Telling stories well is important, agrees Sir Harold W. Kroto (1996 Nobel in Chemistry). “I’ve been in a lot of presentations where I haven’t understood what was going on,” he added. “I try to keep the audience’s attention. I now have a presentation on how to give a presentation.” Images are also vital.

Make Time for Your Family. “You can’t exist as a scientist without some sort of relationship with other people and family is the most important,” said Smithies. A particular challenge for experimental scientists is the need to keep their research chugging along without consuming entire weekends. “Maybe pick two hours each day on Saturday and Sunday” to balance the needs of science and home life.

An understanding partner helps. “The day of my wedding, I was in the lab,” Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (2008 Physiology or Medicine) said to a loud burst of applause. “I received a phone call from the man who would become my husband at 11:30 in the morning. He said, ‘Do you think you will come?’ I said, ‘Oh my God, of course! I’ll be there in a half hour.” Barre-Sinoussi added that it’s difficult to make blanket statements about partner or whether to have children—choices are very personal.

Collaboration Goes Both Ways. Most research requires collaboration, and it’s easy to imagine your personal benefit. Remember others’ needs as well, advised the Nobelists. “Humans are primates, so primates like to have their territories,” advised Barre-Sinoussi; teams should have people who have distinct-enough areas that they can own a piece and yet share information about the larger problem the group is trying to solve.

“The secret of good collaboration is to think about what is in it for my collaborator, not just for me,” said Smithies. “That way, you will make many science friends that will last a lifetime.”

Know When to Stop. How do you know when to abandon a line of inquiry? “I stopped when I got bored or I got stuck,” said Smithies. “Learn to change when things become uninteresting and unproductive. And know that that isn’t the same as giving up.” Sometimes what seems like a stop, because the technology isn’t there, can turn into a pause. When earlier vaccine research wasn’t working for Barre-Sinoussi, she decided to go back to basic research. “One day, you can come back and open another door, and in the meantime the technology will improve.”

Kroto had some last words on this topic: trust yourself. He told the famous story of Charles Townes. Two Nobel Prize winners at one point, visited his lab at Columbia University and told him the MASER would never work. “So the advice from that is, don’t listen to Nobel prizewinners,” Kroto said.

Learn more about the Lindau meeting at Scientific American‘s sister publication Nature, the international journal of science, and a special Web site featuring Lindau blogs, organized by Nature and Spectrum der Wissenshaft, Scientific American ’s German language edition. A slide show, Discoveries 2010: Energy, covers another Lindau initiative, a museum exhibit on energy sources.

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  1. 1. biocolloid 10:32 pm 07/6/2010

    Very interesting compilation. Thanks

    Link to this

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