AsianScientist (Jan. 23, 2014) – At the Global Young Scientists Summit 2014 taking place this week at Nanyang Technological University, a panel of eminent scientists from various disciplines discussed the challenges of being a scientist.
Chaired by Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore, the panelists included Nobel Prize Laureates Professor Aaron Ciechanover (Nobel prize in chemistry, 2004), Professor Anthony Leggett (Nobel prize in physics, 2003), Professor Ada Yonath (Nobel prize in chemistry, 2009), Professor Robert Grubbs (Nobel prize in chemistry, 2005), Professor Martin Chalfie (Nobel prize in chemistry, 2008), and Fields Medalist Professor Wendelin Werner (2006).
Prof. Tan opened the discussion by inviting the individual panel members to share what they personally viewed as important in their scientific careers. All panelists agreed that “having fun in doing science” is key to success in science.
“Stick to yourself as a person and be faithful to who you are during your career and to the questions of what you are really interested in. The first challenge is to choose your way, topic, real motivation, what is driving you. In particular, do something you are passionate about,” said Prof. Werner.
Prof. Aaron Ciechanover agreed, adding:
“If you feel that you are not 100 percent satisfied in what you do, drop it,” he said. “And then you start doing what you really care for. Once you are enjoying what you are doing, once it is big fun for you, it’s not a job anymore, it’s a hobby. The idea in life is not to have a job but to have a hobby and somebody pays you for your hobby,” he remarked.
Prof. Martin Chalfie said that the biggest challenge for him was to overcome his own “stupidity,” which required him to ask the right questions and get over his own “stupid ideas of how a scientist was supposed to be.”
The importance of finding the right mentors was stressed by Prof. Robert Grubbs, who said that he was lucky to find the right set of people who picked him up and helped him along. According to Prof. Grubbs, his job as a professor at Caltech is to identify what a person is really good at. All have specific skills, he said, and the key is to find out what that skill is and encourage them to go in that direction.
Prof. Ada Yonath gave insights into her first years in science, when having fun for her was a challenge because of a bad mentor. However, she managed to overcome this challenge and keep alive her passion for science.
“In my opinion, doing science, no matter what is the problem, is to go after what one really wants to know and to do it or at least attempt to do it. Of course the driving force is curiosity. To do what you are curious about and not just what your mentor says or what is needed to graduate,” she said.
Teaching is another way for young scientists with aspirations of academic careers to enjoy their research, said Prof. Anthony Leggett.
“There are a number of benefits in teaching,” he said. “If you teach in an area different from your research you really have to learn it from scratch and that refreshes your mind. Secondly, you really get inspiration for research, which happened to me a number of times during my career. A third reason is, that, if you only do research, from time to time you run against a wall, which is devastating, so with teaching you always have something to sustain you through the dark periods of research.”
To stay (in academia) or not to stay?
The students asked the panelists how to respond to their mentors’ expectation that they stay in academia instead of pursuing other careers. Prof. Grubbs stated that this kind of expectation was not universal among mentors and that in his personal view, students should get involved in scientific research as undergraduates in order to be prepared for such decisions later.
“The PhD training prepares you for many things, many other things than just for being professors,” Prof. Grubbs said.
Prof. Chalfie added that as long as people are excited about their research while they are in the lab, they can take that to whatever they want to do afterwards.
The young scientists in the audience asked for advice on securing funding for their research. While the panelists agreed that the efforts required to secure funding have considerably increased over the last decades, they said that it is the case for all scientists, even Nobel Prize laureates.
As Prof. Grubbs puts it: “I spent most of my life in raising money and it’s just a fact of life. Today your funds are supporting much less people than 20 years ago and you have to spend more and more time on finding other sources of funding. That is pushing a lot people including me into areas where we can interact with industry and companies, or to go into other fields where there is funding. But it’s also part of what makes a difference in success, how well a scientist can raise funding.”
Agreeing with Prof. Grubbs, Prof. Yonath said that “the need to raise money is a problem in science,” adding that the process is much more demanding than 20 or 30 years ago.
Answering a question from the audience on the best strategy to find a postdoc job in a different research field, Prof. Ciechanover said that today’s universities are increasingly flexible and encourage cross-disciplinary research, for instance, by admitting engineers to medical schools to groom future entrepreneurs and inventors of medical devices or imaging equipment.
Prof. Chalfie gave concrete advice on applications, stating that “99 percent of people who apply for postdocs do it incorrectly.” He advised candidates to focus on one or two labs, spend a month reading about the lab’s work and write a research proposal describing their experimental ideas.
“As a postdoc I would want a colleague rather than a second-time graduate student,” said Prof. Chalfie. “If you come up with a proposal and ideas, you will be so much more excited about doing the work than if I tell you what to do,” he added. “People should take charge of their lives and be proactive. Professors don’t look at the CV, they want to know who you would be as a person in their lab.”
On the question of how to increase the “luck” factor in one’s scientific career – a factor that seemed to have played some role in many careers and life stories of eminent scientists, Prof. Chalfie advised that scientists work on more than one project at a time.
“If one thing is not working so well, you can fall back on another,” he said, to which Prof. Yonath added: “A good scientist is a scientist who, when luck comes to him or her, can grab it.”
A member of the audience asked what were the options available to scientists when it comes to educating politicians, policy-makers and the general public on science issues.
Prof. Leggett stated that a very crucial role for professional scientists is to educate politicians and the public and noted various avenues that exist through which scientists can try to exert influence. These include reports by the US National Academy of Sciences on various subjects with contributions from scientific experts, outreach lectures at universities and talks at schools. But he also noted that more could be done.
“We don’t talk enough to the people who might have different opinions on things. So I think scientists need to be more proactive to talk to politicians,” he said, a thought that was seconded by Prof. Werner.
Finally, a member of the audience asked the panelists how they managed to keep themselves motivated in their research, how they coped with frustrations and if there was a difference between theoretical and applied scientists in this respect.
In Prof. Werner’s opinion, there is no big difference between theoretical and applied scientists in staying motivated.
“For theoretical scientists, they know that there is no immediate application but there might be or probably will be an application for their research topic in the future. But this is not, what we are mainly motivated through,” he added.
Prof. Ciechanover remarked that everybody, at least in the life sciences, was in the same situation.
“It takes at least three years involving several people to do the work and publish it in a good journal and the article will include five or six figures,” he explained. “If you go to the lab notebooks, you will find 500 or 600 figures that are all either repeats or trashed. The frustrations are coming all the time. Instead of knocking our heads against the wall, we analyze the results and turn the failure into a success in the next experiment, so in the end you converted something that didn’t work into something successful. It’s a challenge and it is part of the fun in science. If every experiment were successful, it would be boring,” he said.
Summing up the key points of the discussion, Prof. Tan said that scientists should work on something that interests them, that is fun and that motivates them to overcome great obstacles and setbacks. In addition, he stressed the importance of finding good role models and mentors, as well as perseverance and courage.
The panel discussion “The challenges of being a scientist” was part of the Global Young Scientists Summit 2014, organized by the National Research Foundation of Singapore and taking place from January 19 to 24, 2014 at Nanyang Technological University.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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