Right from the start of our careers we receive advice: “Follow your dreams”, “Be curious”, “Think outside the box”, “Realize your ambitions”. In my first steps as a young neuroscientist, they resonated with me.
But the more I grew professionally, the less I liked her. They came across as trite and stereotypical when confronted with science: it is not always a fairy tale that is underpinned by curiosity. Scientists are more concerned with frustrations and challenges than dreams and rewards.
When I was able to advise students after completing my doctorate, I needed something more substantial. I was looking for inspiring stories and valuable advice to share to help them reach their potential.
I turned my attention to the scientists who have come closest to realizing their fairy tale by receiving the most coveted award they can hope for, a Nobel Prize. I wanted to explore the other side of the coin: the life stories of the award winners; the things we didn’t know about her; the mistakes and frustrations they have experienced.
As a doctoral candidate, I was invited to the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2014 with 37 award winners and 600 young scientists in the German city of Lindau on Lake Constance.
A few months later I had the idea to write a book with interviews with top-class scientists. I contacted the organizers of the meeting and got the opportunity to get in touch with 24 award winners. My book, titled Nobel Life and published in June 2021, contains their life stories, their advice for future generations, and their thoughts on what remains to be discovered. I also received some career tips and advice from them based on my interviews.
Signs are not fate
As a student in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Peter Agre received poor grades in chemistry, the subject his father taught at the University of Augsburg. After school, he attended evening classes before studying chemistry at the same university. Agre, now a doctor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, had his eureka moment – about the structure and function of aquaporin water channels in the cell membrane – while vacationing with his family at Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida. In 2003 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Seize every opportunity to learn
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel revealed the neural mechanisms of memory and received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000. But in the 1940s, before he went to medical school, he was studying history and literature at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and benefited enormously from the experience: “I’m not afraid of writing. This is just one of the things that happens when you study history and literature. They have a broad education. It was very helpful to me. “
Got a plan B (and a plan C)
Venki Ramakrishnan, former President of the British Royal Society, who shared the 2009 Chemistry Prize, switched from physics to biology and resumed studies after completing his doctorate. While studying biology as a PhD student, he also had a plan B and a plan C for a possible career, including retraining to become a teacher and computer programmer. “By switching and restarting, I kept my options open.” The critical assessment of skills and consideration of alternative career paths are indeed valuable exercises.
Having a plan can help, but leaving room for the unexpected can also open up career opportunities. Robert Solow, who received the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, began his academic career with a degree in sociology and anthropology. When he returned to the United States after fighting in Italy during World War II, he began studying economics at Harvard, encouraged by the positive feedback from his wife, Barbara Solow, who was already studying the subject. That was the beginning of an influential career in which he advised several US presidents and looked after eight people who later became 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 scholarship to study yeast genetics was turned down. But that didn’t stop Schekman, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, from conducting groundbreaking experiments and uncovering the mechanisms of one of the most important cellular transport systems. “The grant application on this issue was flatly denied, but I continued,” he says. When the biochemist Kary Mullis wrote a paper on his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, it was initially rejected. Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for developing this technique, which was critical in solving countless crimes and which is at the core of COVID-19 molecular testing. Rejections are a part of the life of scientists and placing them emphasis on conversations with students and junior scientists would give a more authentic representation of the scientific world.
Teamwork with students is essential – as is patience
The biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn made her Nobel discovery with her PhD student and molecular biologist Carol Greider on Christmas Day 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley. Almost 25 years later, they received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of how repetitive DNA sequences called telomeres protect chromosomes.
Tailor cover letter
Martin Chalfie, who co-discovered green fluorescent protein (GFP) – and shared the 2008 Chemistry Prize – emphasizes the importance of writing a tailored message when applying for postdoctoral positions. Chalfie, a biologist at Columbia University in New York City, says such applications should demonstrate a deep understanding of the latest work published by the laboratory in question and may provide ideas for future experiments. “My point is that PhD students shouldn’t work as PhD students after they graduate. Instead, they should become colleagues. That gives the application a completely different twist. “
Last but not least, there will always be challenges in life, but the approach we take when we encounter them makes all the difference. During World War II, neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini was banned from the University of Turin because of the anti-Semitic laws of Italian fascism, but she built a small laboratory in her home to continue her research. She later discovered nerve growth factor (a protein that regulates the growth of cells in the nervous system), which led to her sharing the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen.
The examples given by the award winners are valuable: Having role models and seeing how they fought for their success is important for all scientists. Seeing them in action and learning by getting the most out of each of them is one of the most effective ways to get advice for future generations.