What it Takes to Win a Nobel Prize
Lessons from a life dedicated to research, and the dark side of science too
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them — William Shakespeare
Interestingly, the author of Gene Machine, and 2009 Chemistry Nobel Laureate, actually had a PhD in physics. It was only after some time in his career that he became interested in biology.
As we would imagine, at the beginning there were some difficulties so people would let him work at a biology laboratory. He also realized that biology was full of jargon that he needed to memorize, but he did.
He then gained some experience in the lab and thought about doing another PhD in biology. However, there were two problems: it would be time-costly and his colleagues told him he already knew enough.
Now, this article is about some of the lessons that I collected from his book Gene Machine. Even though the book can get a little technical and explain how he actually discovered the structure of the ribosome, what I found most valuable were indeed, the lessons from working in this field.
This is also an article about the facts that few people mention regarding the Nobel Prize: how it does help science but affect scientists, why it could be becoming an obsolete ‘tradition’, and what other possibly better prize is already here.
Lessons from a life dedicated to research
#1 Fast Fashion?
I personally wouldn’t have imagined that fashions are also present in science in such a way that there are people who can move from one field to the other.
What do I call it fast fashion? Well, because it’s normally the areas where people are making rapid advances, the ones in which others prefer to move to. In other words, many scientists move on from a problem as soon as it gets complicated to make further progress.
Now, this isn’t completely wrong, since it has actually led to the creation of entirely new areas. The problem can arise when others just follow one fashionable area after another.
If everyone did this, our understanding of phenomena would be very superficial. Fortunately, other scientists stick with a problem, no matter how old and difficult it is. They hustle until they get to the root cause.
#2 Doing experiments
The first lesson that Venki mentions, is that advances in biology are often made by choosing the right organism to work on.
The second one isn’t explicitly mentioned. However, I still think it’s worth to know that sometimes, in some fields, research can go very, very slow.
An example of this is that in order to study the structure of the ribosomes, Venki needed to get crystals of them. This was only a minor step, which could eventually lead him to his end goal. The thing is, that sometimes they would have to wait a few years to obtain those crystals.
It wasn’t their fault, the process was just so slow. Now, I’m not really into how this works nowadays (hopefully it’s faster), but the important point to keep in mind is that in science, we will encounter these kinds of blocks on the road, and it’s only more science, that will be able to help us out.
#3 Does politics matter?
By reading this book I’ve learned two main things: one is that the politics of science is called academia, and the other one is that science can also, sometimes, transcend what would be considered trivial things, even such as a war.
We can see this when one of Garber’s colleagues was Igor Serdyuk, a Communist Party member involved in “communication with foreign countries” who had no problem traveling frequently to the West, even at the height of the Cold War.
At the same time, in comparison with the Germans, the Russians were poorly funded and equipped, which has something to do with how politics affects science.
#4 The Mindset
Probably the most intriguing question anyone can come up with while reading about Venki’s story is: how does a person with a physics background solve a biology problem?
Well, also reading between the lines, I found out that he had a great passion for learning and doing things on his own, instead of letting other people do everything.
“I didn’t want to just sit back and watch Steve solve them. I wanted to learn how to solve them myself”
I cannot think of a more motivational fact. If a person with almost no specific knowledge in a field — biology in this case — can get so far, what is the secret? If I had to summarize it, it would be: Figure it Out!
More than twice, the author mentions how his connections helped him whether he was in a hurry, or they just made things much easier. For example, some people who complimented the research being done because they had computation skills.
Other times, he also acknowledged to have been in the right place at the right time. What I’d add to that, is that he also had the right connections. Needed special lab equipment fast? A friend or colleague could provide just that!
In this context, a good question to ask is: what makes a good collaboration? The author tells us that these work best when the people involved are good friends, enjoy working together, have complete confidence in each other, or when they have complementary expertise.
Something to keep in mind, is that sometimes working with another person will also require a willingness to give up complete control of the project and to share credit in ways that might not seem fair to everyone.
Even being a scientist, acknowledging the truth can sometimes be a hard thing to do. What if that involved turning out as unprofessional in front of your colleagues, simply because you made a mistake?
One ethical dilemma to think about is: it took you a lot of time (even years) to complete your research. You get published in a good scientific journal. After some time, you discover that you were wrong.
You probably thought it was the greatest discovery you’d ever made, but at the same time, you now know that if you leave it in the journal, others could read it and assume it’s right, which would cause harm to science itself.
As hard as it can sound, the right decision to make seems to be withdrawing your paper. Truth comes first.
That willingness to challenge is the great thing about science: no matter how important a discovery, people will attack any parts of it that they think are not right
Politics in Science
Now here’s the part about the politics of science. The way I see it, this world is called academia. To my understanding, in the present this is the professional system in which most scientists work.
This is probably one of the most interesting things that I learned in the book. How doing scientific research actually looks like, the constant roadblocks that you can face, even when working at prestigious institutions, and the corruption that exists in this system as well.
“Scientists discovered that 30% of the US population is in an obese weight state”
Ever wondered where these statistics come from? You see, unfortunately, science doesn’t pay itself. In the book we can take a look at some ways in which researchers are funded.
One of them, and certainly the most common one, is by getting grants. According to Wikipedia, grants are non-repayable funds or products disbursed or given by one party, often a government, to a recipient.
In Gene Machine we can learn that in some institutions it will be harder to receive outside grants, but they can pay your salary and give you enough money to do science with a technician. In others, you depend on getting federal grants, which can definitely mean a disadvantage.
These grants are typically funded by the National Institutes of Health, after being reviewed by a panel of a dozen or more experts in your field. In theory, that is a great way to fund science, and it has worked extremely well.
Nevertheless, there are two problems with these expert panels. One is that they tend to be too conservative, and don’t like to support original proposals, where the work isn’t clearly feasible.
The other problem is that each panel receives over a hundred proposals- Because only a small fraction get funded, even if one of these reviewers isn’t enthusiastic about a proposal, it is essentially doomed.
“So although the process can be fair on paper, in practice it can get somewhat arbitrary, particularly when it comes to risky or highly original proposals.”
As you may imagine now, the way you communicate your proposal or your discoveries also has a great influence on how people see it, which can ultimately be a determinant to your career.
So apart from the challenge that the project represents itself, scientists also have the challenge of communicating their ideas in the most readable and understandable way possible.
Definitely something to keep in mind!
It isn’t just scientists who are competitive; journals are too
Again, scientists are humans too. They can also feel this instinct of competitiveness when wanting to be the first to publish an important finding, work on an interesting problem, and yes: they all want to win the Nobel!
Although the competition is sometimes friendly, sometimes friendships can also enter the competition. By “enter the competition” I don’t necessarily mean that they are competing directly with each other.
Venki experienced times when his colleagues advised him not to present his findings because he would be left in embarrassment in front of other scientists whose discoveries were “ better”.
I’m actually a newbie to this academia world, but to me, this doesn’t seem logical. No matter how good or bad our work can look like in front of others’. I do think it’s important that we feel confident when we know we’ve done a good job. Peer pressure alert!
Then even if your colleagues don’t put this pressure on you, you can still feel the time constrain. Important projects such as sequencing the human genome, or unveiling the structure of the ribosome, are races.
Our Nobel Laureate had to be moving from one institution to the other, depending on the research he was doing at the moment, and the resources he needed for that. He was looking for the best places for his research, while his competitors were making progress. Months could be lost in the meanwhile.
Another not so desirable situation is knowing that these competitors are ahead of you, such so that you wouldn’t be able to reach them. Then you discover that their work wasn’t as detailed. You shouldn’t have worried. You won this battle.
Trying new things
As mentioned above, when being in academia, you don’t always want to bring the most innovative and crazy idea to the table. However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t also be an advantage in certain cases.
For instance, while this Ribosome race was happening, a technological revolution was also arising. This meant that more people were starting to use things like projectors to showcase their work.
This definitely made some people’s presentations seem more appealing to the eye.
The moral? Innovation should never be forbidden, but if it’s simply “complicated” to make others understand, you can also find a way to go about it.
The dark side of science?
We are here to talk about the prestigious prize in a different way. To unveil what seems to be only prestige and glory, and see what’s truly behind the situation. Venki wonderfully did this.
Almost every young science student has had a fantasy about winning a Nobel Prize. Today, it doesn’t only represent having done something great, but being great.
Unfortunately, as these scientists grow personally and go through their careers, their fantasies quickly take a backseat to reality, and only a small fraction of them even get to meet Nobel Laureates in person.
Therefore, one of the best pieces of advice to keep in mind is not to go into an area of research with the idea that there will be a big award at the end. Rather, do it because you’re curious and genuinely interested in solving that problem or finding the answer to that question.
I’d also say: don’t give up on the dream of winning a Nobel Prize! But also don’t even see it as your main or end goal. Do understand that there’s a whole system behind this, which I will explain in further detail in the next sections.
The seek for a reward was embedded into our brains since ancient times when we were still evolving from other species and learning about our environment. To our advantage or detriment, that is still true today, even in “more rational” disciplines, such as science.
The 2009 Chemistry Nobel Laureate tells us how the system apparently trains us to do our best, by training us to compete with each other, and feel the desire to feel special and somehow better than our peers at virtually every stage of the process.
And it’s not like the Nobel Prize is the event or organization, or prize that makes this happen. As the author mentions, the corruption starts early, with small prizes throughout our education, then prestigious fellowships then early career under-forty prizes.
Later on, scientists hanker to be elected to their country’s academies and then win grander prizes. However, all these prizes affect only a tiny fraction of scientists. Why?
Well, it turns out that another reason why we should maybe not worry about winning the big prizes in the first place, is because most of them go to people who work in elite institutions, have had powerful mentors and networks, and are on the fast track to fame and glory.
At the pinnacle is the “magnificent” Nobel Prize. What’s the story behind it? What does someone need to do in order to win one of these and why could it be becoming obsolete?
The main topic and reason for this article is indeed, the Nobel Prize, which came into existence thanks to a Swedish chemist, Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and parlayed it into a huge industry.
Since this guy was worried about his legacy, he decided that the bulk of his enormous fortune should go toward a set of prizes. Three prizes in the sciences (physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine), a prize in literature, and interestingly, there was no prize for mathematics.
The timing of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901, was particularly propitious. Its creation coincided with the kind of revolution in science that happens only once every few centuries. Quantum mechanics, and relativity, changed our view of matter forever, while the discovery of genes and the inner structures of the cell revolutionized biology.
The sum of money involved, at that time, was enough to guarantee the recipient’s financial security for the rest of their life! And so soon, the Nobel became synonymous with greatness.
One of the many problems
As one may imagine, at that time, scientists worked pretty much in isolation, and met only once every few years. Therefore, by the time they announced their findings, there was no doubt of who had discovered what.
However, in today’s world, an idea shared at a meeting can quickly spread throughout the world, and lots of people will certainly contribute to its development. In this sense, it’s not always clear who contributed to the truly groundbreaking advance.
Now, if you were wondering what could be helping the Nobel Prize become obsolete, it’s because of two rules. The first one, is that no Nobel prize can be awarded to more than 3 recipients, and the second one is that in order to receive the prize, there must be an experimental proof.
Bye bye, Nobel
Noticing that there have been many scientists who have made important discoveries but haven’t been awarded because of either of the rules mentioned earlier, a “competitor” for the Nobel Prize has arisen.
The Breakthrough Prize was created by Yuri Milner, a physicist turned entrepreneur and venture capitalist billionaire who decided to reward famous physicists in string theory who would never get a Nobel because the theory is, so far, not capable of being experimentally verified. He gave nine of them a prize of three million dollars each.
Later on, he convinced fellow billionaires like Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg to join in, so there are now Breakthrough prizes in life sciences and mathematics.
Indeed, The Breakthrough Prize is worth about eight to ten times the cash value of a shared Nobel Prize and is awarded in California, with Hollywood celebrities taking part.
Some other characteristics that make it different from many other prizes is that it has been awarded to institutions and teams, which according to the author, better reflects the industrialized nature of much of modern science.
It doesn’t have the arbitrary rule of three, and it also ignores the Nobel criterion that theories should have been experimentally verified to qualify. As a result, the Breakthrough Prize has gone to some brilliant physicists who did not qualify for the Nobel, such as Stephen Hawking.
The Nobel prize is not awarded for being a great scientist, but rather for making a groundbreaking discovery or invention, this means that some people were simply persistent, and some others just happened to stumble onto a major finding at the right time.
What not many people mention, is that prizes like this may be good for science, because they push people to do their best. However, they also affect their behavior and exacerbate their competitive stack, ultimately creating a lot of unhappiness.
Last but not least, there is a lesson that doesn’t only apply to science, but to life itself:
“When we have a clear goal in mind, we think we are struggling to reach a summit. But there’s no summit. When we get there, we realize we have just climbed a foothill, and there is an endless series of mountains ahead still to be climbed.” — Venki Ramakrishnan
Hey! I’m Sofi, a 16-year-old girl who’s extremely passionate about biotech, human longevity, and innovation itself 🦄. I’m learning a lot about exponential technologies to start a company that impacts the world positively 🚀. I love writing articles about scientific innovations to show you the amazing future that awaits us!
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