5 lessons I have learned from 5 Nobel Prize winners

Nobel Prize Dialogue Tokyo 2019 The Age to Come was a full-day event allowing public listen to Nobel Prize winners and other prominent researchers discussing various aspects of aging. As we are in Japan, a country with passion for technology, technology assisted aging was also discussed.

It was also an opportunity to ask both Nobel Prize winners and other researchers some questions. JSPS had invited 100 JSPS fellows to come also assisting financially. I have decided to take an advantage of this opportunity and made a trip to Yokohama (Pacifico Yokohama Conference Center) on Sunday (17th March 2019). I got to meet a few other JSPS fellows that day, which is always a treat.

The event was very stimulating and got me thinking about many aspects of science. Not only that, it got me thinking about scientists too. How these prominent researchers differ from others? Do they think differently? Do they work differently? What can I learn from them?

After reflecting for a week, I have distilled my thoughts into five lessons from the Nobel Prize winners. Here they are in no particular order:

Lesson 1: Stay true to yourself

It was obvious that each one of the laureates had quite a different path to their Nobel Prize worth discoveries. All of them however stayed true to themselves.

One wanted a freedom to pursue their own interests above all, and that is what they did their whole career. The other person received an opportunity to apply their previous research experience into a new field. The third person made their discovery accidentally (as they claim) while wandering around.

These people appeared to feel so comfortable with their personalities on display. This was almost funny to watch, and definitely worth admiring.

Lesson 2: Sometimes you need luck

None of the laureates said “it was all me”. Contrary, they all agreed that there was an element of lucky coincidence, good timing and serendipity involved. Many have mentioned the crucial involvement of other people. Staying open to the new, seemed to be the message.

Lesson 3: Stay curious

As the luck is involved, it is important to stay curious and pay attention to the periphery while you focus on the main research tasks. There is always a chance that you will overlook something new, only because you are not looking for that. But how to stay curious?

If you are a young researcher, taking “random” research assistant positions, may serve you well. Not only you will learn a lot about research methods, but who knows, maybe you discover your new passion.

For more senior researchers, working with students or collaborators may be useful. Contact with other minds may spark new idea, promote new ways of looking at things and stimulate creativity.

Lesson 4: There is so much we still don’t know

When I was in school, I thought that what we read in books is known; that it is the reality and truth. By doing science, reading and listening about science, and taking about science, I have realized that what I have read in school was a simplification of the reality.

Even at the undergrad level, learning starts with model or schematic representations of what we are trying to understand. The grad school is really the first time when we are openly discussing that many of things we take for granted are not quite true. Or even if we know they are true, we are not quite sure why.

Also, development of new research methods and equipment allows us to learn more. Combining different disciplines gives us new ways of analyzing things. The combinations of applications are endless.

For a researcher, it is truly motivating in a sense that, I can stay learning for my  whole life. There is no end to be seen.

Lesson 5: Basic research is important

Asking why, what is the mechanism of the things we observe was highlighted as very important. We are still guessing many things in science. Our assumptions often have not been validated.

Questioning assumptions and considering other options is crucial. Going back to the reasons why things we observe happen, looking at possible mechanisms, testing the hypothesis, and doing it in iterative way, should be at a core of science.

Translational research is not all. If we try a solution proposed by science to solve a particular problem, and it works – great. But as soon as it does not, that is a sign to along with trying different applications, think about also going back to the assumptions.

Post scriptum

These are the lessons I have learned in just one short day. Having access to brilliant minds, not only the accomplished ones, but also to the young ones (aka JSPS fellows:)), was thought provoking and inspiring.

Also, there were things I knew or was thinking about already. It was still nice to hear that it is not only me who have these experiences. One of this is related to the “more basic science” postulate, and the other concerns new scientists’ development. So these will be the topics of next two posts on the blog. Stay tuned!

Thank you to the Nobel Prize winners present at the Tokyo 2019 The Age to Come who were an inspiration for this post:

  • Elizabeth H. Blackburn (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 2009)
  • Angus Deaton (Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences 2015)
  • Tasuku Honjo (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 2018)
  • Tim Hunt (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 2001)
  • Randy Schekman (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 2013)

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