Sunday, July 04, 2010

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2010

I just returned from 60th Nobel Laureate Meeting for chemistry, physics, and physiology in Lindau, Germany. What a week!

The Lindau meetings provide a way for Nobel laureates to pass on advice and inspiration to young researchers. In 1951, Count Lennart Bernadotte became the patron of a meeting that included 7 laureates, 400 doctors, and 70 students. This year, Count Bernadotte's daughter Countess Bettina Bernadotte presided over the meeting of 59 laureates and 650 young researchers. The group of young researchers was quite diverse, with 171 from Germany, 94 from the United States, 36 from China, and representation across many other countries. The program consists of four days of morning lectures followed by parallel sessions of afternoon talks, panels, and discussions. The meeting provided a stimulating atmosphere to reflect upon how to solve society's big problems.

Through talks, discussions, and panels, the Nobel laureates gave excellent advice about pursuing scientific research. Professor Oliver Smithies shared his passion for doing experiments and described his procedure for keeping organized lab notebooks. When asked about his hard work, he said that he viewed it not as working hard but as playing hard. Professor Martin Chalfie talked about the cumulative nature of scientific success and the different routes by which one could arrive at it. Some laureates discussed the importance of translational research (actually working with patients); other laureates emphasized the importance of basic research, talking about how they ended up solving problems that they did not predict when choosing an initial research direction. Many of us did not know whether to feel better or worse when one laureate said that after winning the Nobel Prize, he still has to cite possible reviewers of his funding proposals. :)

Attending the meeting helped me to better understand the Nobel laureates as real people. Professor Chalfie talked about how he had not been a science superstar earlier in life; Professor Kurt Wuthrich said that he had come u his work in proteins through his early interest in sports. When asked about his non-science passions, Professor Smithies said that he was also passionate about flying and about his wife, and that the ideal Saturday consists of flying in the morning, taking his wife to lunch, and then doing experiments in the afternoon. At lunch, physics laureates Professors Cronin, Smoot, 't Hooft, and Gross were very approachable and talked about everything from pranks they pulled as students to the technological singularity. Many of the laureates also brought their spouses who were not in science--this provided a nice view into their lives.

At the meeting, the Nobel laureates also discussed social issues that scientists should think about. They addressed the usual topics of global warming and the energy crisis. Prof. Christian de Duve gave a talk on evolution and said that the future of human life is threatened by overpopulation as a result of evolutionary success and suggested population control as a possible effective solution. Prof. Harry Kroto gave a talk (which I did not attend, but heard about from many people) about the "GooYouWiki" world and the importance of educating the public about science. Science communication was a common thread among many of the topics and panels: it is necessary not just for having lasting impact in one's field, but also for having impact of science policy.

I was happy about the meeting with respect to representation of women in science. Though the ratio was quite skewed when it came to the laureates, the ratio was much better among the young researchers. Chemistry laureate Professor Ada Yonath talked about her granddaughter at the end of her lecture to show young women that they could do science and have a family, too. Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi talked about the importance of having a supportive partner and told the story of how, in lab on her wedding day, she received a phone call from her partner asking whether she was still coming. Professor Smithies, when asked about the leaky pipeline of women in science, said that it is important to recognize that some women want time to raise children. In his evolution talk, Professor de Duve said that we may be better off putting women in charge, since females may be more wise as a result of having evolved to consider the future when taking care of the young.

Besides being an incredible academic/research learning experience, the meeting was also a great social experience. As you can see in my Lindau photo album, many of my memories are not from talks but from social events. The Monday dinner was quite a bonding experience when everyone joined together to be paired with a stranger in dancing the polonaise. I loved meeting fellow young researchers at events such as the Grill & Chill, the Bavarian evening, and the boat trip to the isle of Mainau. It was interesting to learn about the academic, research, and life experiences about people working in different fields and research environments from me.

I am grateful for the Bernadotte family, Microsoft Research (my nominating institution), and everyone else who made this experience possible!