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Vol. LXI, No. 24
November 27, 2009

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Nobelists Inspire Young Chemists

OHR’s Langford (r) answers questions about working at NIH. Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary for health, told NIH grantees and other attendees at the Partners in Research workshop that “working with communities in partnerships is where we must go in this country

Above, l: The island of Lindau provides a picturesque setting for the annual Meeting of Nobel Laureates.

Above, r: NIGMS-supported graduate students Sarah Bowman (l) and Erika Milczek (r) were honored to talk with chemistry Nobel laureate Richard Ernst.

The tiny island of Lindau in southern Germany swells with brainpower each summer when hundreds of specially selected graduate students and two dozen Nobel laureates descend for a week of lectures, laughter, science and sauerbraten.

Held every year since 1951 on this postcard-perfect patch of Bavaria a few miles from Switzerland and Austria, the Meeting of Nobel Laureates connects young researchers from around the world with Nobel Prize-winning scientists, as well as with each other. It’s the only official Nobel event outside Stockholm. Lectures in the mornings, question-and-answer sessions in the afternoons and networking lunches and dinners encourage what the organizers call “intergenerational” interaction.

The theme of the Lindau meeting alternates on a 3-year schedule. This year’s was chemistry, attracting 580 young scientists from 67 countries.

The U.S. delegation included 64 students in their third and fourth years of graduate study. Nominated by their universities and approved by the Lindau council, students attended the conference for free with the support of the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Oak Ridge Associated Universities and—for the first time this year—the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

“This is evidence of our interest in collaborations among science agencies and promoting awareness among American scientists of what’s going on globally,” said NIGMS chemistry program director John Schwab, who helped select the 15 NIGMS-sponsored students and who accompanied them to Lindau.

Several NIGMS-supported Nobel laureates attended the meeting as well, including Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock (2005), and Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimomura and Roger Tsien (2008).

They and other Nobel recipients impressed star-struck students with their accessibility, candid opinions and tales of a dedication to high-quality science, often driven by serendipitous findings.

One of the most popular talks came from Swiss laureate Richard Ernst (1991), who shared his passion for Tibetan art and argued that having interests outside the lab creates better scientists. It was a message that resonated with young researchers struggling to find a healthy work/life balance.

“It was wonderful to speak to all the Nobel laureates and get life and research advice,” said NIH-sponsored attendee Erika Milczek of Emory University.

“It’s one thing to hear them give a scientific presentation, but another to interact with them on a personal level,” added Yale University student Imran Babar, also an NIH-supported attendee. “They seem bigger than life, but then you see that they’re normal people. You hear their stories about the pathways that led them into science in the first place and their success.”

The lesson that struck Babar the most was that a career in science is “not focusing on winning the prize but instead on doing good science and being passionate about the journey. If you win the Nobel, that’s great, but if not, that’s good too, because you’re doing what you love.”

The scientific talks offered an accessible and inspiring array of topics, from the latest advances in a chemical reaction known as olefin metathesis to climate change and renewable energy. A common theme at the Lindau meetings is the impact of science on society.

Milczek, who studies an enzyme implicated in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and depression, enjoyed learning about topics far afield from her own research. “This was a whole world of chemistry I hadn’t been exposed to,” she said. “The conference taught me to see more than my small part of the overall puzzle.”

For his part, Babar—who studies mice to find out how mutations in microRNAs may contribute to lung cancer—appreciated the broader-spectrum talks, saying, “It was more meaningful to me to be able to hear the perspectives of science as a whole as it interacts with society than some of the very esoteric talks where you had to be getting a Ph.D. in organic chemistry to get something out of it.”

Whether attendees were energized by the microscopic or the macroscopic, the meeting inspired many of them to take on some of the biggest scientific challenges the world faces today. “It’s impossible to come back from this meeting and not be ready to tackle global warming and genetic mapping and all these problems,” said Milczek with a laugh.

Many students were also able to meet the scientists who made the discoveries that underpin their own thesis research or who developed the techniques they now use. Attendee Sarah Bowman was thrilled to have an after-dinner talk with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) pioneer Ernst, since she focuses on NMR in her own research.

Bowman also spoke at the conference’s closing session alongside laureate Kurt Wüthrich (2002), who did NMR work on the same protein she studies, as well as council president Countess Bettina Bernadotte, whose late father helped establish the Lindau meetings.

Outside the lecture halls, U.S. delegation administrators arranged networking sessions with student groups from India, China, Israel and other countries. In addition to stimulating lively discussions about differences in education and certain universalities in the graduate research experience, the peer-to-peer conversations allowed students to establish a network of contacts and potential future collaborators.

“I’ve gained I don’t know how many Facebook friends,” said Babar. “There are scientists I’m now connected with globally who I never would have met.”

Milczek said she came back from the meeting with “a real enthusiasm for collaborations” after hearing so many laureates emphasize the contributions of their own colleagues. “My advisor is amazing at establishing international collaborations. I just didn’t know everyone thinks it’s as important as he does,” she said.

Along with a pocketful of business cards, some students returned with new ideas brewing, technical tips to try or a better idea of what they want to focus on in their postdoctoral training. Some gained a new appreciation for communication in science. Others found themselves reinvigorated at a time when their research had been dragging or they’d been thinking about leaving science altogether.

After the meeting, Milczek spent 2 weeks in a collaborator’s lab in Italy before returning to Emory. She said she “couldn’t shut up” about all the ideas she’d picked up from the conference. Fortunately, she found that her European colleagues shared in her excitement.

If Milczek’s experience is any sign, the Lindau meeting will continue to inspire budding scientists for years to come. “I want to stay in research,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to getting back in the lab. I’ve calmed down a little, but I still have energy, excitement, passion.” NIHRecord Icon

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