July 1, 2010 | 7:09 PM Tanya 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!
June 30, 2010 | 10:09 AM Tanya Petrossian
Today was an exciting day of lectures! All were very interesting, but I had been looking forward to two in particular: Dr. Oliver Smithies’ lecture on “Chance, Opportunity and Planning in Science” and Dr. Kurt Würtrich’s on “Structural Genomics and the Expanding Universe of Protein Sequences.” Both did not disappoint!
Dr. Oliver Smithies is absolutely one of the most intriguing and down-to-earth scientists I have ever met. In fact, the 85-year old laureate is still doing wet lab experiments! During his talk, he showed us pages from his old notebooks. The first was from 1954, describing his efforts to find a precursor to insulin through protein migration on filter paper. He joked, “I never found it.” However, through his “failed” attempt, Dr. Smithies discovered something much more important: he developed the protocol for gel electrophoresis, a technique that every biological scientist has run at least once in their lives.
In the early 50’s, the local hospitals would conduct protein electrophoresis with a wet box of starch grain as the medium. However, in order to locate the protein, scientists had to cut the box into several slices and conduct 40 chemical determinations on every slice for one electrophoresis experiment. Instead, Dr. Smithies described to us his solution: “I remember helping my mother to do the laundry when I was a child. When she starched my father’s clothes, she cooked the starch and used the starch to make my father’s collar stiff. When you tidied up at the end of the day, the starch would set a gel… I thought that I could cook the starch and make it into a jelly… All I would have to do is stain the gel.”
The most fascinating thing is that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering this technique; he was awarded it for genetically modifying mice through embryonic stem cells.
At first, I couldn’t help but wonder how Dr. Smithies ended up working with mice and embryonic stem cells when his initial focus was on discovering insulin precursors. Dr. Smithies quickly answered that question in his lecture. He encouraged us to “seize the opportunity when you have it.” Dr. Smithies was not afraid to redirect his focus to molecular sieving after his initial experiments weren’t working. And he continued with this mindset through his long, fruitful scientific career.
Dr. Würtrich added to these words of wisdom based on his own scientific career. He reminded us that many of his papers that have been cited over a thousand times were published in low-impact journals because the high-impact journals valued the method of crystallography more. His lecture was particularly interesting to me since my thesis project is in the field of structural proteomics, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for solving a protein’s structure through NMR. I suppose the appreciation was mutual since he stressed the importance of bioinformaticians. He described how informatics can elucidate the function of many unknown proteins once a novel structure has been solved. This is, in fact, the focus of my dissertation: using these structures to discover novel methyltransferases.
The feeling in the lecture hall was quite a bit different when we left today. The idea that the Nobel laureates are scientific Gods or superbeings was dispelled. These scientists are actually quite similar to us. Of course, they are very intelligent. But they, too, have had experiments that don’t work and publications in low-impact journals. What seems to be common among many of the laureates is that they were not afraid to be different or creative when developing solutions to these problems. They each described how they recognized a gap in scientific knowledge, and used it as an opportunity to advance their own scientific careers, even if it was outside of their specialty.
June 28, 2010 | 2:53 PM Tanya Petrossian
After much anticipation, our first day of laureate interaction begins! There were 6 lectures in the morning, including Dr. Ada Yonath’s "The Amazing Ribosome," Dr. Jack Szostak’s work on the artificial cell, and Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi’s "HIV, a Discovery Highlighting the Global Benefit of Translational Research."
In the night’s formal dinner, I was fortunate enough to sit next to Dr. Werner Arber. I didn't know how to introduce myself to the discoverer of restriction enzymes, so I just simply introduced my name and university. It actually turns out that he spent some time at USC and started retelling stories of the past. One of my favorite stories was how he heard of winning the Nobel Prize back in 1978. He was on vacation (with no access to radio) and when he returned back home his neighbor congratulated him! Dr. Arber was confused and very tired from his trip, but soon found that he had won the Nobel Prize and it was announced on the radio while he was gone!
His then 10-year-old daughter, Sylvia, wanted to tell her friends about her father’s achievement, so she asked her father what exactly she should tell them. When Dr. Arber described to her in simple terms the mechanisms of restriction digest, she came up with an analogy equating a cell to a king and the enzymes to servants. The restriction enzyme is the servant with scissors who cuts up the foreign king/DNA that invades the cell.
In the midst of the dinner, there was a panel discussion on stage discussing the importance of communicating science to the public. In the midst of the panel, Dr. Arber turned to us young scientists next to him and whispered, "Do you want to know what I think? When scientists themselves cannot agree on basic scientific discoveries, how can we then turn to society and try to explain them to the public?"
He went on to describe the difficulties of communicating ideas that are based on scientific notions that others refuse to adopt based on personal beliefs. I understood his point, but I was intrigued as to what conflicts he had encountered in his research since restriction enzymes are integral in recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) and genetic testing by "cutting" DNA at desired positions.
His response was quite interesting. He said that although restriction enzymes are now an essential tool in molecular biology, if one begins to think why organisms have these enzymes, the answer always points to evolution. Restriction enzymes are necessary for horizontal gene transfer, the transferring of genetic material from other organisms that are not its parents. This scientific process can be natural and explains how animals - and humans - arise from a common ancestor. Therefore, if people refuse the theory of evolution, they will certainly not be pleased to hear why we have restriction enzymes.
Another student asked Dr. Arber which field will be the next minefield for scientific discoveries. Dr. Arber answered that he personally believes it will be epigenetics - the study of inherited changes in phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. I was very pleased to hear this since my research has contributed to epigenetics; in fact, I had written a special report in the Epigenomics journal describing all of the methyltransferases that are integral in epigenetics. I described my research efforts to Dr. Arber and my goal to discover all of the methyltransferases in yeast and humans, and he agreed that this type of research is essential and the wave of the future.
The conversation ended when all of the young male scientists were asked to choose a female scientist for a dance in the front of the hall. I said my goodbyes, took some photos, and went on the dance floor.
This was a day to remember!
June 27, 2010 | 1:12 PM Tanya Petrossian
The 2010 Meeting of the Noble Laureates has officially begun! Tonight was the Opening Ceremonies (looks like my Olympics analogy wasn't too far off!), held in the grand lecture hall of Inselhalle. It was surreal to walk into the lecture hall for the first time and be in the same room with the nearly 700 international students, 62 Nobel Laureates, international dignitaries and press all collected in the room.
I sat next to a Pakistani physician who specializes in mallofactial surgery. Immediately we launched into conversation to discuss our research expectations of the meeting. It was difficult to stay on one topic as each of the Laureates found their seats among us. We swapped stories that we had heard about a few of the Laureates. “Soon enough,” I exclaimed, “we are going to have even more tales to share with our family, friends, and colleagues.”
There were many speeches given, including one from local Countess Bettina Bernadotte and Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. They stressed the importance of education and encouraged dialog among all scientists regardless of discipline or country. This meeting has evolved in the past 60 years to where it now is twice as “international” as the World Cup, with 70 countries represented.
The message each speaker presented was united and simple: the focus of the meeting was on us, the young scientists.
Afterwards, the U.S. delegation held a dinner for the other students. I particularly had the pleasure of sitting next to a faculty lecturer from Bangladesh. We launched into conversation about research and she asked my opinions on the field of bioinformatics (my specialty). After I described my research in detail, she expressed that her dream was to pursue bioinformatics in the United States. She went on to describe how most bioinformaticians have specialties in computation sciences or mathematics, and although their knowledge is useful, we both agreed that in this age of information technology and powerful machinery (mass spectrometry, NMR, etc), a strong background in biological and chemical applications for data analysts is invaluable. There is a need for individuals to understand both the specific questions that experimentalists are investigating and the computation resources available to help answer them.
The night ended and I returned to my room and tucked into bed, excited for the first round of meetings with the Laureates, which begins tomorrow!
June 26, 2010 | 11:30 AM Tanya Petrossian
Today was a tough day. I arrived to Munich on a red-eye flight from D.C. with part of the U.S. delegation (the remaining students took the flight to Zurich) and loaded straight onto buses for our journey to Lindau. I imagine the ride would have been soothing escape from the bustling sounds that I am used to hearing in Los Angeles and most recently New York City (where I completed an internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.) However, after the 8-hour flight (and a previous 6.5-hour flight from L.A. to D.C. just days before), I had little tolerance for the traffic that we encountered on the way to Lindau. Lindau is a summer escape for many Germans, and being a part of the Saturday morning commute required the same level of patience required to tackle the US-101 at I-405 Interchange. Amusingly, we passed three McDonalds on the way.
The journey was worth its long anticipation. We entered the island of Lindau, where we were greeted with large panels with black and white pictures of Nobel laureates. The island itself is quite small; only 0.7 square kilometers (a little over a quarter square miles). I didn’t have much time to take in the beauty of the island as we dragged our luggage on the cobblestones around the massive stone wall surrounding the quaint medieval city. In California, I celebrated packing my bag to under the 50lbs limit (46.4lbs!), but in Lindau I was not as joyous when I dragged the luggage single-handedly up the stairs to my room.
The U.S. graduate students are fortunate to stay on the island close to all of the conference venues. Overheated and extremely exhausted, I plopped myself onto my bed and was worried that my next blog entry would be from a German hospital. Since there was no air conditioning in my room, I asked the ladies at the front desk if they knew of a location I could purchase a fan. Although the island is small, it does have a great market and other shops. I was informed that there was indeed an electronic store. I perked up for a moment, until my dreams of laying in a cool oasis were dashed as I was quickly told that the store was closed -- since it was 2:30pm on Saturday -- along with most of the other shops on the island. It would not reopen until Monday.
This threw me in a state of panic, and feeling my blood sugar levels plummet I knew that the possibility of my passing out was very imminent. Since there is no room service in this hotel, and ordering a deal for delivery from www.seamlessweb.com was not an option, my roommate came to the rescue. Although I can’t recall any of our conversation in my hypoglycemic haze, she returned with water, banana and crackers that stabilized me enough to walk outside and grab a quick meal to eat.
I passed by a döner kebab shop and thought that would be the perfect meal before I retreated to bed. Although the streets were fairly quiet, six other young customers were in line before me, two that were German and the others were foreigners. I thought they had arrived together in a group since the Germans were helping with translations, but then one turn to me and asked if I needed help as well. In fact, all of us were attending the Meeting of the Nobel Laureates, and no one had known each other before they stumbled into the same shop.
We all sat down to eat dinner and started talking. It turned out that two ladies were from the Republic of Cameroon, one guy was from Spain, and the last guy from Egypt. When I mentioned that I was from UCLA, the Spaniard exclaimed "So you like Pau Gasol?!" We launched into a long discussion about the Lakers. I found it my duty to inform the others about the American/Angeleno cultural importance of basketball, including strictly factual information regarding the glory of the Lakers and the evils that are imbedded deep in the roots of the Celtics organization
Another interesting topic discussed was our winter experience this year. I had experienced my own unique winter experience in New York City for the first time -- apparently it was the harshest one to hit the region in years -- but it was interesting to also hear similar stories around the world. The Spaniard recalled the rarity of seeing snow in Barcelona, and the ladies from Cameroon shared a similar story. The Germans recounted record high levels of snow.
We were all quite tired and departed shortly after, but it was such an unexpected experience to have a great conversation with the other students. I can already feel that the environment at this meeting is unlike anything I had experienced before. At conferences, often time students mingle within their research and focus on their own scientific subset. Here, I sense that students are very open to meeting people from everywhere and excited to discus topics of any nature. In fact, we did not even mention our research during our dinner. And the diversity of the meeting is extraordinary; I have never met anyone from Cameroon before today!
Although the beginning of the day was rough, I ended my night looking forward to experiencing what this environment cultivates for scientific conversations. I don’t have to wait long…the meeting begins tomorrow!
June 25, 2010 | 11:24 PM Tanya Petrossian
Let me paint the picture of this morning: My alarm went off at 5:00am EST (yes, that’s 2am PST/my internal clock), yet somehow I was able to peel the lids off my eyes. When I regained a certain level of consciousness, I realized that the room was noticeably warm. I would later find out that this was only the beginning of the weather that would greet us. I think the official weathercast recorded a high of 100°F with a bazillion percent humidity. As a native Southern Californian, I have never experienced weather like this in my life. I finally gained a full understanding of the difference between "dry" and "wet" heat: magnitudes of discomfort.
Despite the temperature challenge, I found the strength to doll myself up for the 6:30am photo op. Hopefully I forced a believable smile in the group photos.
Afterwards, the entire U.S. delegation headed to the Department of Energy (DOE) building for a series of lectures beginning at 8 a.m. As we stood in line for security, I flashed my Lakers cell phone cover to the other graduate students and received a few boos and eye rolls. That’s okay, I wasn’t expecting for all of my colleagues to have great taste in sports!
Even though the air conditioning was broken in the DOE building, I still survived to hear all of the morning lectures. The first topics discussed were the origins of the Meeting of the Nobel Laureates and the Nobel Prize. It was interesting to hear that even a hundred years ago, the media attempted to speculate who would win the Nobel Prize. The most infamous prediction was in 1915 when the New York Times, Literary Digest, and The Electrical World of New York announced that Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison would jointly share the Nobel Prize for Physics. However, a few days later, the Nobel Committee actually awarded the prize to Sir William Henry Bragg and his son Sir William Lawrence Bragg.
Next, we were given an overview of each organization that supports our graduate student delegation in the Lindau Meeting. This included my sponsor, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has a $31 billion budget, dedicating over half of the funds supporting research and project grants. NIH has supported 119 Nobel Laureates to date.
Lastly, we received a quick orientation on Lindau, Germany and some advice for the meeting. Before the trip, I had received quite a bit of advice from just about everyone around me. However, I think that Linda Holms, the Associate Director of Science Education Programs in the Oakridge Institute for Science and Education, gave one of the most interesting suggestions: “If you are presented with an opportunity to sit next to the wife or husband of a Laureate, grab that seat! I guarantee you will find some great stories.”
After lunch, we quickly went back to the hotel to change into comfortable clothes for our flight to Germany. I put on my black, one shoulder romper and noticed that my outfit was missing something. My equally fashionable friend recommended that I borrow her red belt, and she was right! It was the perfect accessory to complete the look. "So cute!" another girl confirmed. Conversations quickly turned into pastimes, and I was excited to find that my friend too enjoys a morning run. We agreed to be running partners for the Lindau trip and I can’t wait to hear her running tips based on her marathon experience.
As I boarded the plane, I realized that this was definitely a special group. Although we have been named some of the best scientists in the nation -- in fact, the world -– we still were able to break the stereotypical, scientific mold. Today we spent the entire day together, and we didn’t use our spare time playing Dungeon and Dragons, making socially awkward comments, complaining constantly, or acting in a way to confirm the notion that scientists should be locked up in laboratory with their bacteria. Instead, this group of exceptional young scientists is passionate, open-minded, collaborative, and multidimensional.
I have no doubt that the United States will be proudly represented in the Meeting of the Nobel Laureates. Germany, here we come!
June 25, 2010 | 2:42 PM Tanya Petrossian
Today, I am in Washington D.C. to meet with the other young scientists in the U.S. delegation of the Lindau meeting. We have a great group!
My roommate is a chemist from Montana State University. She actually knows a past collaborator of mine — what a small world!
After some sightseeing around D.C., I had an informal dinner with four of the U.S. delegates. It's always exciting to have conversations with fellow scientists; whether we are discussing monkeys bathing in sulfur baths in Fuji or the current status of the floods in Tennessee (including the first-hand observations from a Vanderbilt University graduate student!), inevitably intriguing comments, new insights or unforeseen observations are made.
I asked the others if they were nervous about the meeting. To my surprise, the unanimous answer was yes! I was comforted by the fact that I wasn't the only one who felt this way, but in my own mind I couldn't quite understand why. I knew why I was excited to attend the meeting; I knew why I was honored to be chosen as a U.S. delegate…but nervous?
My new friend/fellow delegate was able to put into words very clearly a reasoning behind these seemingly irrational emotions: We are about to meet the superstars of science; the very people that we idealize and strive to become. At times, we may very well feel like we are the dumbest people in the room. But it is only by surrounding ourselves by these brilliant individuals that we can grow as scientists and as human beings.
After our conversation, I really realized that I can learn a lot from not only the Nobel Laureates, but also my fellow graduate students….
June 23, 2010 | 1:29 PM Tanya Petrossian
Video with professor Steven Clarke at UCLA, before departure for Germany.
It’s quite ironic that on this date just last year, I found myself standing on the second floor of the Stockholm City Hall. During the 17th Annual International Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology, the Stockholm City Hall held a welcome reception for the world’s top bioinformaticians.
The significance of the Stockholm City Hall to scientists extends well beyond its beauty. It holds the remnants of the footsteps from individuals who have forever impacted the fields of chemistry, physics, and psychology/medicine. It is the location where the great minds that discovered digital devices, HIV, and the structure of DNA have all gathered to be awarded one of the greatest honors of all: the Nobel Prize.
I remember being overwhelmed with thoughts about the individuals who have danced in the same room, celebrating their win of the coveted Nobel Prize. How did those scientists get to where they are today? How did they feel when they were awarded the Nobel Prize? Did they go through similar hardships that I have encountered through my graduate studies? Believe me, science is not easy! And what advice do they have to give to a young scientist like myself?
At the time, I thought those questions would remain unanswered, yet now, I am given the rare opportunity to ask these questions to 65 Nobel Prize winners at the 2010 Meeting of the Nobel Laureates! This meeting is held every year in Lindau, Germany, and gives young researchers like myself an opportunity to interact with Nobel Laureates to foster the transfer of knowledge between generations.
As a young child, I was a nationally ranked swimmer and had dreams of representing the United States in the Olympics. In fact, as an undergraduate, fellow students wanted to be my lab partner because they had seen my name in the swimming magazines. Since then, I have worked hard in my studies and now am honored to represent the United States in this meeting, the Olympics...of the minds. Yet, instead of competing, scientists gather together to work towards the same goal: great science.
The meeting begins in just 3 days and I can’t wait! My schedule is very packed in Germany; every day is filled with several Laureates giving lectures to an audience of nearly 700 international students. I am most excited for the small, informal seminars that provide the perfect forum to converse with the Laureates and ask any question that comes to mind. Questions relating to science, politics, religion, and personal ideology are all fair game! In addition, I am really looking forward to speaking with other young researchers from the United States as well as abroad.
My ultimate goal of the Lindau Meeting is to find out what makes these brilliant, revolutionary individuals tick. I hope to discover the characteristics that have made these individuals so admired and influential to humanity, and pass my observations and experiences onto others to enlighten, inspire, and encourage.
Showing 1 — 8 of 8 posts