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Richard J. Roberts

Richard J. Roberts

Credit: Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

Thriving in the face of career uncertainty

At the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which takes place 28 June to 3 July in Germany, some 650 students and postdocs will mingle with 66 Nobel laureates and attend lectures, panel discussions, and master classes. One of those laureates is Richard J. Roberts, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine jointly with Phillip A. Sharp for their discoveries of split genes. In an interview with Science Careers, Roberts shared his thoughts on how to build a career in science. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What do you enjoy about science?
A: For me, science is my hobby as well as my profession. It is enormous fun. Just like every child, when I was young, I was very curious about everything around me. Fortunately, I managed to avoid having that knocked out of me while I was at school, and to this day, I take advantage of my curiosity to explore the life around me. As a result, I either think about new things or make discoveries every day. What other profession can offer those kinds of rewards?

Even these 'small' discoveries make my job fun and exciting because you never know when one of the small discoveries will turn out to be big.

—Richard J. Roberts

Q: What traits make a successful scientist?
A dogged persistence to solve any problem that comes along. An appreciation that many experiments fail, especially when working in a new field or in areas where we know rather little. Personally, I like it when experiments fail repeatedly after checking that the problem is not the experimenter, because it usually means our basic hypothesis—and hence the axioms on which it is based—is wrong, and nature is trying to tell us something. This means a discovery is waiting to be made!

Another key feature is that good scientists have open minds. They are always open to new hypotheses and experimental opportunities. Very often, a new technique applied to an old problem will reveal some new features that were not predicted—again, an opportunity to make a discovery.

Successful scientists will also constantly be on the lookout for good problems to solve. They tend to be skeptical of explanations that seem too simplistic or not well supported by evidence.

Q: How did you move to an independent position?
During my postdoc at Harvard in Jack Strominger’s laboratory, I was fortunate to be working in an area and on a problem that was not the main focus of Jack’s attention. As a result, I worked fairly independently but with excellent support when I needed it. This made it fairly easy to transition to an official independent position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Q: What is the right time to transition to independence?
As soon as possible. Researchers are easily at their most creative when they are young, because they have no fear. This makes it much easier to challenge dogma and take risks—both essential features of the creative process.

Q: Have you ever experienced self-doubt?
I think most scientists have self-doubt from time to time, but in general, the better ones have very little of it—or at least they don’t share it with others. Personally, I have always been fairly confident in my abilities and my views, although as I get older, I do recognize that my abilities are less than they were when I was younger.

Q: What does work-life balance mean to you?
My wife thinks I am a workaholic—but, while I know what she means, I don’t view most of what I do as work. I love it! It is both my profession and my hobby. Most of my work involves using computers to analyze DNA and protein sequences, which means that almost every day I experience the thrill of discovery as I see new things that have never been seen before. Even these “small” discoveries make my job fun and exciting because you never know when one of the small discoveries will turn out to be big.

Q: What advice would you offer to those planning a career in scientific research?
My advice is to find an area that you are completely passionate about and focus on it single-mindedly. That doesn’t mean you can’t change if something more exciting comes along, but you will be happier and more successful if you love what you do. At the moment, there are a few areas of science that are especially intriguing for research. Almost all of biology is at a stage where we know a little but nothing like as much as we will need to if we want to say we have a good understanding of life. Materials science, both biological and chemical, is another area where there are many opportunities for breakthroughs in a more applied sense. For basic research, I think bioinformatics is a growth area and absolutely fundamental to future studies of biology. We need to do a much better job within the field of bioinformatics and give it a firmer grounding based on experimental underpinnings. Already, we are accumulating enormous amounts of DNA sequence information, but our ability to interpret it is lagging far behind. And yet, ultimately, almost everything we need to know about life will come from bioinformatic analysis of DNA sequence. We have to vastly improve our ability to predict function from sequence.