Becoming a successful scientist

18 January 2017 | Research
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Questions came in thick and fast for Nobel Laureates (from left) Prof Ciechanover, Sir Andre and Sir Timothy during a panel discussion moderated by Prof Halliwell (right)

NUS was abuzz with scintillating discussion when three Nobel Laureates — Professor Aaron Ciechanover, Sir Andre Geim and Sir Timothy Hunt — shared their thoughts on how scientists could be successful during a panel discussion at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine on 16 January. Held in conjunction with Global Young Scientists Summit@one-north 2017, the event was moderated by Professor Barry Halliwell, Senior Advisor to NUS President, and Tan Chin Tuan Centennial Professor.

Sir Timothy, credited with the discovery of cyclins, which play a key role in regulating cell cycle transitions, kicked off the discussion by stating that one thing which makes scientists successful is “finding stuff out”, adding that in his observations, great scientists liked to be very clear about things.

“They’re very straightforward, and in fact when I was a student, I thought they were a bit naïve. And I think that naivety was them trying to get to the bottom of things,” he explained. Sir Timothy, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001, also believed that much of success was due to luck, with one being in the right place at the right time.

Prof Ciechanover felt there is no secret to success in science as many scientists do not manage to repeat their success. However, in retrospective contemplation of his own career, he highlighted a few elements which might bring about success. He advised the young scientists at the event to think about whether they really love science and whether that passion could be sustained for 40 to 50 years. “Mentorship is critically important,” he continued, saying that one needed to learn from mentors through apprenticeship.

Prof Ciechanover, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004 for discovering that cells use ubiquitin to indicate ageing proteins that should be destroyed or reused, said that it was important to be in a leading place of research, as he believed that “good places have good people, and good people have good people with them”. He urged scientists to work on projects that would contribute to knowledge in a significant way, and exhorted the audience to challenge authority respectfully. “You have to go read, ask and challenge,” he recommended.

Sir Andre said that a lot of luck and hard work were important in achieving scientific success, and the odds could be improved by obtaining a good education and by being open-minded in subject choice. “You can still spread your bets by trying to move from subject to subject, trying to be more adventurous. What is important really, and especially for young people here, is to improve your chances not only by changing subjects, but to change subjects, you need to be flexible, and this can’t be gained without very good education,” he said.

Sir Andre, together with his colleague, Professor Konstantin Novoselov, discovered graphene, a material composed of a single layer of carbon atoms. For his groundbreaking work on graphene, Sir Andre was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

The discussion was followed by a lively question-and-answer session. Many in the audience posed questions on how scientists could continue to remain curious, as well as experiences which the Nobel Laureates found the most frustrating and how they dealt with them. Other questions included how one made the decision to switch subjects; the use of publications and impact factor as a benchmark for measuring success; managing feelings of inadequacy; and the process for finding a problem to solve.

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One of the many attendees who put forth their questions to the eminent scientists

Kenny Low, a PhD student from NUS Materials Science and Engineering, found the talk to be an interesting experience. He learned a lot from the talk, “not only in the area of science but also in how you view experience and learning in general”. Jakub Mikula, a PhD student from NUS Mechanical Engineering, found the talk insightful as some of the questions he had been asking himself were answered during the discussion.

Some 250 people, including PhD students, postdoctoral research fellows and professors, attended the event.