Food for thought, as well as the stomach

On Tuesday evening I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the academic dinner hosted by the Lockheed Martin Foundation in Weinstube Frey. However, unlike the traditional and very formal Oxbridge academic dinners, for me this experience turned out to be much more relaxed and really brought the Laureates to life as personalities that extended beyond their scientific achievements.

Martin Fenner has already described his experience at a single table in the adjacent room, but our meal was hosted with a slightly different set-up. We had 3 small tables where diners were spread amongst the Laureates and I enjoyed an evening in the presence of Oliver Smithies, his wife Nobuyo Maeda and Martin Evans‘ wife, Lady Judith. We were joined by Michael Marty, an enthusiastic young chemist from the US, about to start his PhD, as well as one of the organisers from the Lindau foundation, Andreas Bohn. The food was excellent and we all dined on huge plates of fresh salad to start, pork knuckle with potato dumplings and white cabbage to follow and then a choice of fresh fruit or chocolate and ginger cake to finish, both served with raspberry sorbet. However, in addition to the set menu, there was plenty of additional food for thought during the meal.

Refreshingly, after an intense couple of days of lectures, the conversation was wide-ranging, always looping back to science but including plenty of personal anecdotes and experiences. Smithies is now a naturalised American citizen and some of the discussion focused on the different experiences that he and Marty have living in the US compared to the rest of us who are based in Europe.  With the ever-present shadow of the World Cup, we also compared national favourite sports – Germany’s being football of course, while the UK also included rugby and tennis and the US diners tried to explain the appeal of baseball.  Unsurprisingly, we all took pleasure in the games with more strategy.  

 We’d all had a lot of opportunity to see the world and/or meet interesting people as a result of being scientists

It was also interesting to compare travellers’ tales as we’d all had a lot of opportunity to see the world and/or meet interesting people as a result of being scientists. Marty told of a January trip to Jamaica organised by his faculty as a way of experiencing a conference for the first time as well as studying in a different environment. He’d also time spent in a pharmaceutical company and managed as a result of its location to be present at Barack Obama’s inaguration. Lady Judith recounted that being a scientist can also result in needing to move due to your job and explained the excitement and decision making process behind her and her husband’s move from Cambridge to Cardiff where he is now a Professor. While very happy with Cardiff as a place to live, she also recounted her disappointment at missing a Royal Society anniversary event in London recently which the Queen was also attending,due to train trouble between Cardiff and London. 

Smithies was quick to stress that nothing is a true failure 

The strictly scientific parts of the conversation included discussions on the merits of blogs or other forms and science communcation and whether scientists can measure their productivity or achievements not just by publication record, but by recognition for their other contributions such as mentoring, teaching and communicating science online. We also discussed the perils of projects composed solely of negative data, but Smithies was quick to stress that nothing is a true failure and it’s only when you stop enjoying doing something that you should give it up.

Do something that you enjoy because then it won’t feel like work

Perhaps the most important piece of advice of the evening came from Smithies, who explained to us that what is most essential in life was “to do something that you enjoy” because then it won’t feel like work. He explained that even now, aged 85, he still goes into the lab on a Saturday and he does so because he still has the curiosity to discover more. This enjoyment came across clearly on Wednesday morning in his lecture where he showed carefully numbered notebooks (he’s now on notebook Z’1!) and sometimes less easy to decipher scribblings, that track his many experiments.

The Lindau academic dinners are a superb idea and I hope that Lockheed Martin in their first year as sponsors were also pleased with the evening. If you were one of the attendees on another of the tables in Weinstube Frey, do feel free to share your experiences of the evening in the comments.

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