Play hard at science/Reflections on Lindau
July 1, 2010 | 7:09 PMTanya Petrossian
Today was the last day of the Lindau meeting! It’s been quite a long, exciting, but exhausting week; however, it ended appropriately with a panel of four Nobel laureates on the seemingly simple yet truly multifarious and mystifying topic of “being a scientist.”
The scientists chosen for the panel were suitably eclectic: Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Physiology or Medicine, 2008), awarded for the discovery of HIV; Dr. Harry Kroto (Chemistry, 1996), awarded for the discovery of fullerenes; Dr. Oliver Smithies (Physiology or Medicine, 2007), awarded for his contributions in genetically engineering mice; and Dr. John Mather (Physics, 2006), awarded for the discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.
The first topic discussed was the importance of working hard. Without hesitation, Dr. Smithies declared that it is not necessary to work hard. Instead, a scientist should play hard. He elaborated on his statement, explaining that a scientist should enjoy his/her experiments so much that it becomes play, not work. In fact, the 85-year old scientist explained that in his eyes, the perfect way to start a weekend is with a fun, Saturday morning experiment.
Dr. Smithies’ view was fully supported by Dr. Kroto, who added that it is most important to find an area of science where one can invest 100% and never put in second grade work. If a scientist finds that he/she cannot contribute in a particular area, Dr. Kroto suggests to simply switch to another one. In an era where so many specialties of science exist, a scientist does not need to be stuck in a field that leaves him/her lacking inspiration or motivation. Dr. Barré-Sinoussi spoke of how her work is fun as well, and discussed how her career has transformed throughout the years. Now as a public figure, she has the opportunity and pleasure of meeting a lot of people and discovering diverse cultures. She concluded by stating that she most enjoys learning from others; to hear that a Nobel laureate is so humble as to meet and learn from others was truly inspiring.
The panelists were not as agreeable on the topic of presentation styles. During an informal session earlier in the week, Dr. Kroto had actually given a presentation on how to give a presentation! He stressed the importance of keeping the audience attention through bold imagery and limited text. In fact, his 50-minute presentation contained over a hundred images, some displayed for as little as 10 seconds. During this panel discussion, Dr. Smithies, though, boldly declared that in his lab meetings, he has completely forbidden PowerPoint. He believes that PowerPoint leads people down the dangerous path of over-complexity or oversimplification. Instead, he prefers the modern-day version of a “chalk talk” – using only a whiteboard and marker. As a result, students cannot hide behind the “glitz and glamour” of the computer, and are forced to showcase their own knowledge. At most, Dr. Smithies allows for students to hold up an 8.5 by 11 printed picture of a published figure.
One of the last topics discussed was differences in approaches to management. Dr. Mather manages large, intricate groups of people and explained that organizing teams of people to work together requires much trust in others. He stressed the importance of finding a balance between knowing that no one can do everything right the first time and identifying/utilizing people for their talents. Dr. Smithies, on the other hand, has a drastically different management style. He stands side-by-side with his graduate students and continues to perform experimental work. When asked if he believes in the importance of a Principle Investigator to be intricately tied to the lab work, Dr. Smithies responded with a fascinating answer: the reason for his involvement was because he was “selfish” – he simply likes doing experimental work!
As the laureates made their closing statements, I found myself surprised at the take-home message. Entering the meeting of the Nobel Laureates, I hoped to discover the commonalities between these great scientists. Maybe, subconsciously, I was hoping to devise some sort of formula that could unveil what makes a Nobel Laureate. After all, I am a bioinformatician! But really, what I realized is that there is more than one way to skin a cat…or do amazing science and be awarded the Nobel Prize. In such a technical field, there exists a subconscious stigma that a scientist must look a certain way, act a certain way, and solve a problem by a certain, methodical process. Although I have fought this notion throughout my young career, it was refreshing to hear in this meeting that individuality in science is not only celebrated, but in fact the very reason why these scientists were awarded the prize: for their “unique” contribution to science.
Lastly, there was one more observation, too, that I made throughout my time in Lindau. As I was walking around with my nametag displaying my name and UCLA affiliation, I received an overwhelming and unanimous positive reaction about our university, not only from Americans, but also the international students, dignitaries and laureates alike. So, Bruins, I urge you to continue representing our school well and I thank you for following me throughout this experience!