Nobel Prize

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Nobel Prize-winning lessons

The Nobel Prizes will be awarded next week, with the prize for physiology or medicine scheduled to be announced on Monday, physics on Tuesday, and chemistry on Wednesday. While we’re still in suspense, this weekend reading will help get you in the Nobel mood.

“The idea that there is a recipe for winning a Nobel Prize is, of course, preposterous,” Elisabeth Pain wrote about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. But the early-career researchers who attend the meetings can still learn valuable lessons from the past Nobel Prize winners they meet there. 2010 attendee Troy Ruths reflected that the laureates “are fantastic scientists, but it is less about them and more about their approach. … They were pioneers because they had found a new phenomenon and were just trying to find out what it was.” Ibrahim Cisse’s take-home from the 2012 meeting was to “[p]ursue your interest and try to do the best you can do.”

If you prefer your advice straight from the horse’s mouth, in 2011 writer Michael Price spoke to a number of winners to get their take on their success. “Especially when you're young, you have to take risks,” that year’s physics Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt told Price. “That's how you get the opportunity to ensure some chance of something big happening.” And last year, 2012 winner in physiology or medicine Shinya Yamanaka said at a conference that the “best chance” for winning a Nobel Prize lies in exploring “unexpected results.”

Taking the road less traveled and bucking the scientific establishment can lead to a Nobel, writer Beryl Lieff Benderly agrees, even though it’s not always smooth sailing. And working in a culture that seems to foster prize winners could also help. But, of course, there’s a lot that’s beyond your control. Stanley Prusiner, the sole physiology and medicine winner in 1997, said in 2014 that it’s “better to be lucky than brilliant,” and in 2011 and 2012, columnist Adam Ruben explored the fickle nature of selecting prize winners and doling out scientific credit.

The most important thing, then, is to make sure you’re doing science that you care about, as 1993 physiology and medicine Nobel laureate Richard J. Roberts told Science Careers in 2015. “My advice is to find an area that you are completely passionate about and focus on it single-mindedly. … [Y]ou will be happier and more successful if you love what you do.” 

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