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Career Lessons From Lindau

Nobel laureate Walter Kohn

Nobel laureate Walter Kohn chatting with young scientists at this year’s Lindau meeting.

Credit: Rolf Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

When Niger native Ibrahim Cisse learned that he had been nominated to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in physics in 2012, he felt "great excitement," he recalls. Even so, the meeting exceeded his expectations. "It’s a much richer meeting than just meeting the Nobel laureates," he says. His interactions with the other young scientists at the meeting, and discovering the beautiful island city, contributed just as much to making it such an enjoyable and enriching experience.

Presented annually for more than 60 years, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings aim to foster close scientific exchange between brilliant minds—some quite young, others as established as it is possible for a scientist to be. Every summer, some 550 early-career scientists gather for a week with 20 to 35 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences on the beautiful island of Lindau, Germany. This year's meeting, which focused on chemistry, hosted laureates from A (Peter Agre) almost to Z (Ada Yonath).

The atmosphere was very inspiring, and new ideas, they just flew to my mind.

—Melanie Kim Müller

The idea that there is a recipe for winning a Nobel Prize is, of course, preposterous—but what young scientist could resist seeking one at a meeting like this, even if they know better? While no recipe emerged, the attendees Science Careers spoke to—from this year and previous years—all found their approaches to science affected in lasting ways.

Ibrahim Cisse

Ibrahim Cisse

CREDIT: Matt Staley (HHMI/Janelia Farm)

Closer to the science

For Melanie Kim Müller, a second-year Ph.D. student in organic chemistry at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, in Germany, the takeaway message of this year’s meeting in chemistry was that "you really have to work hard to get well-grounded results." While that hard work may be a daunting prospect, "if you really like your research and your field, you can stand it."

Cisse's most notable conclusion from last year's physics meeting was that when much of the Nobel work was being done, it didn't seem like "the most exciting thing that the field could think of," he says. The Nobel laureates were "brilliant at what they were doing, of course," but many of them seemed like "fairly regular researchers [who] took on an interest" in a scientific question and pursued it relentlessly. The lesson Cisse took away from the meeting: "Pursue your interest and try to do the best you can do."

Troy Ruths, who attended the most recent interdisciplinary Lindau meeting, in 2010, saw another trend in the laureates’ success. "They are fantastic scientists, but it is less about them and more about their approach," he says. "They were pioneers because they had found a new phenomenon and were just trying to find out what it was." What set them apart, he observes, was new ways of collecting data.

A computer specialist, Ruths attended the Lindau meeting during the second year of his Ph.D. in bioinformatics at Rice University, studying networks of molecular interactions that underlie cell function. He left the meeting, he says, with a new research philosophy: Computer scientists shouldn't just think about and analyze the data they receive. They should also ask themselves, "How do we need to measure our world? What measurements are we missing?"

"You need to get closer to the science that’s going on, because that’s where you will actually be able to ask the right questions, and maybe come out with new ways to acquire better data, and to improve the algorithms," Ruths says. Since the Lindau meeting, he has been applying this philosophy to his work on his Ph.D., as well as to a data science company he is starting up.

Troy Ruths

Troy Ruths

Courtesy of Troy Ruths

Müller, whose Ph.D. focuses on the selective and sustainable synthesis of cyclic ethers, also brought back fresh ideas. At Lindau, she says, "The atmosphere was very inspiring, and new ideas, they just flew to my mind." Some of the theoretical chemists and material scientists in attendance even suggested a new and different way of thinking about the reaction mechanism she was studying; today she is examining the new concepts in her laboratory.


With the broad view it provides of the scientific landscape, the Lindau meeting can help focus your research, Ruths says. That is especially true of a joint meeting like the one he attended in 2010, which gathered physicists, chemists, and biologists. The meeting, he says, helped him "take a step back" and consider, "Where are the big questions? Where are people working? Where are people stumped?"

Müller was encouraged by Ada Yonath’s reassurance that women can have both a successful research career and a family. "Now I can really imagine that," she says. "A lot of female, young researchers are frightened; they don’t know if it is possible or how it is going to work, so she really encouraged us."

When Cisse attended his Lindau meeting, he was a postdoctoral fellow in two departments, physics and biology, at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. Earlier, for his Ph.D., he used his physics training to study biological interactions at the molecular resolution—but for his postdoc he changed approaches dramatically, turning to cell biology and applying his skills to the development of high-resolution functional imaging of DNA transcription in living cells. It was, he felt, a risky career move.

Melanie Kim Müller

Melanie Kim Müller

CREDIT: Rolf Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

But at the Lindau meeting, Nobel laureates reassured him that it was OK to change fields—and that the new field he had chosen was exciting. "I was surprised that many of them were very excited about biophysics," he says.

A sense of community

The meeting's early-career attendees were even more reassuring, Cisse says. Some of them, he found, had made moves similar to his. All were eager to contribute to new biology discoveries—but many also shared an even more ambitious hope. "My generation of biophysicists are also asking … whether there is going to be new physics that we discover from studying these biological phenomena," he says. The feeling that you are part of such a large effort is "motivating, and it gives you a certain sense that what you are doing is worthwhile and the obstacles that you are going to encounter are worthwhile to try to overcome," he says.

In the year since he attended the Lindau meeting, the contacts Cisse made have melded into a strong support network. Some of those contacts offer opportunities for exciting new research collaborations; others helped him settle in when he moved to Ashburn, Virginia, in January, to take a research specialist position in the Transcription Imaging Consortium at the Janelia Farm Research Campus.

One of the most profound impacts that Lindau had on Cisse was to help him realize that he had a broader role to play in society. During a debate on the future of energy, Cisse was surprised how well informed—and opinionated—young researchers from the United States, Germany, and Japan all seemed to be. Cisse felt that the developing world too had a lot to offer on the issue, yet its perspective was missing.

Cisse says he is now paying much closer attention to the public debate about science education, and that he hopes to inspire children in Niger to enter a field of science. The Lindau meeting has "changed my perspective on how I think science education could benefit society, and how I think as young scientists we could potentially make a difference not just in our field, but perhaps help address a societal need as well," he says. "I’m hopeful that maybe I could help contribute to that."

Wish you were there?

Attendance to the Lindau meeting is highly competitive. The attendees are survivors of an international, multistep nomination and selection process.

But even if you aren't selected to be there in person, you can still learn from the meeting. Most of the lectures of the Nobel laureates, and also the panel discussions, are documented in the Lindau Mediatheque. You can also access the Lindau Nobel Online Community, where young scientists and journalists blog about their experiences in English, German, and Spanish.

Finally, Cisse recommends creating similar—if more modest—experiences for yourself by arranging your own meetings with scientists you respect at the events you attend. "Many people [who] have been successful are eager to tell you … how to … overcome challenges over a beer," he says.

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