Lindeaublog 2018

Aspiring for the prize is nonsense

Tjitske van Engelen is PhD candidate at the Center for Experimental and Molecular Medicine at Amsterdam UMC.

'Just because we’re sitting here with Nobel prizes doesn’t mean we’re right all the time.’ This is how Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for the ‘elixir of life’, opened the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. ‘It’s not the source that counts, but the quality of what’s said. Don’t be awed by the source. Don’t trust us to be right!’ added Martin Chalfie. But of course we all hung on their every word

Almost beyond description

As one of 600 young scientists from all over the world, I attended a meeting that was almost beyond description. Even if I try to tone it down, it still sounds pretty amazing. To spend a week on Lake Constance in the company of many talented young researchers and 39 Nobel laureates? I didn’t know what to expect, and it was so much better than I could have ever hoped. The days were filled with humour, career advice, well-told stories, and many new colleagues.

Opening Ceremony of the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Pressure, fear and luck

Martin Chalfie shared his experiences as a young researcher: ‘When you’re completely on your own but with all possible resources, you have lost one thing: every excuse not to succeed through your own effort. Some love it and thrive, but some cannot handle the pressure or responsibility.’ Would I be able to handle the pressure? As the week wore on, I was frequently intimidated when researchers of my age presented their work, recently published in Science or Nature. How I can I ever compete with my fellow young researchers, let alone the Nobel laureates?

Luckily, these irrational fears were addressed as well. It turns out that everyone feels that way every now and then. All the laureates had worked hard, but a fair share of luck was usually also part of the story. Harold Varmus started out as a researcher because it was his ticket out of the Vietnam War. And as Richard J. Roberts said, ‘When you’re lucky, you think twice as hard about your next steps.’

Once you have it, that’s it!

All of the sessions were inspiring, but Peter Agre’s talk struck me the most. He was modest, kind, and seemed to truly want to make the world a better place. ‘Young scientists may think we have an algorithm in our head, deciding which way to go. However, it’s more about going with the flow. Follow what catches your interest. Aspiring for the prize is not what we’re after, we’re in it for the science. Just do the best you can.’

And that is exactly what I intend to do: the best I can. Aspiring for the prize is nonsense. It may not even be very nice, according to Dan Shechtman, who almost

sounded disappointed when he said, ‘Did you know that the Nobel prize is the last one you will ever get? Once you have it, that’s it. No more prizes.’ Ada Yonath stressed the fact that she was prouder to be ‘the best grandma ever’ (according to her granddaughter) than a Nobel laureate. And even if you do win a Nobel prize, it turns out you can still wear your All Stars when you walk on stage and use old-school Comic Sans MS for your PowerPoint slides.

Tjitske van Engelen meeting her favourite Nobel laureate, Peter Agre

But the best part wasn’t the 39 Nobel laureates and their prizes. The best part was meeting young scientists from all over the world: Uganda, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Norway, India, and other places. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different cultures, see everyone dance together, and hear about all their scientific endeavours.

I’ve never before been at a conference that so motivated me to get back to work!