Noble Advice

(May 12th, 2015) There are many science prizes around these days but the Nobel Prize is still the most prestigious. Nobel laureate Richard Roberts compiled ten rules (some more serious than others) one has to ‘obey’ to get that call from Stockholm one day.

It’s not quite the “time of the year yet” but some might be dreaming about them already – the Nobel Prizes. How are your odds of winning one and is there anything you can do to increase your chance? Better ask someone who knows something about it: for instance Nobel laureate Richard Roberts. That’s exactly what Philip Bourne, founding editor in chief of PLoS Computational Biology, thought and he immediately contacted Roberts, who “was the first person to come to my mind, partly because he is a good sport, partly because we share an interest in open (to be interpreted here as candid) science”. And also because he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phillip Sharp for their “discoveries of split genes”, genes that contain both exons and introns. So, what’s Roberts’ advice for all aspiring scientists out there?

Rule number 1 is, according to Roberts, the most important one and the best advice he can give: Never start your career by aiming for a Nobel Prize. “Don’t even hope for it or think about it,” he writes. “Just focus on doing the very best science that you can. Ask good questions, use innovative methods to answer them, and look for the unexpected results that may reveal some unexpected aspect of nature. If you are successful in your research career, then you will make lots of discoveries and have a very happy life. If you are lucky, you will make a big discovery that may even bag you a prize or two. But only if you are extraordinarily lucky will you stand any chance of winning a Nobel Prize. They are very elusive.”

Of course, Roberts also has some other helpful tips. Don’t collaborate with more than two researchers (“there can only be three winners on the ticket for a Nobel Prize”), pick your laboratory wisely: either work in the lab of a former Nobel Prize winner (you will “benefit greatly from the inspiration that this approach can bring”) or in the lab of a future Nobel Prize winner (but “it is not always easy to spot the right mentor, one who will bring you that sort of success and then share the glory with you”), treat Swedish scientists kindly (“Swedes a very nice people, good scientists, easy to collaborate with and extremely amiable drinking partners”) and last but not least, the rather surprising advice “study biology”.

“There are many reasons for this. First, biology is fascinating, never boring, and directly affects our everyday lives, yet we still know relatively little about it. Thus, the odds of making a big discovery are greatly increased compared to other disciplines. Second, biology is all around us, is vastly complicated, and encompasses disciplines such as medicine, agriculture, conservation, and computer science, as well as many others, thus lending itself to the kind of interdisciplinary approaches that make science such fun and can easily lead into new territory. Third, unlike physics and chemistry, biology is ever changing, thanks to evolution. What seems to be the rule today may have changed by the time you are doing your experiments. Finally, there are two Prize categories in which biological discoveries are currently being awarded. One is Physiology or Medicine, and the other one is Chemistry, in which about half the Prizes go to biologists. Already you have increased your odds by 50%.”

If you take all this to heart and even have a Nobel Prize winner in your family (Rule number 4: “Seven children of Nobel Prize winners have gone on to win the Prize themselves, and four married couples have jointly won the Prize”), then you might want to book your flight to Stockholm rather sooner than later.

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: Nobel Foundation (Jonathunder)

Last Changes: 06.26.2015