Veröffentlicht 29. Juni 2023 von Hanna Kurlanda-Witek

Life As a Scientist

Varmus during the Agora Talk on stage. In the foreground, a young scientist who asks a question
Harold Varmus in conversation with a Young Scientist during his Agora Talk

There is no such thing as universal advice for every scientist, as everyone is different and everyone has unique life trajectories. This was emphasised by Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, “Everybody gets different pleasures, rewards and disappointments from science.” But there are some tips that most Nobel Laureates would agree with. At #LINO23, Nobel Laureate Jacques Dubochet spoke about what it means to be a responsible scientist, while Harold Varmus presented his “Ten Axioms for a Life in Science.” Both spoke to crowds of eager listeners.

Nothing Wrong With Taking Your Time

Varmus’ first axiom was the one that particularly generated a lot of questions. “I have a strong belief in a prolonged adolescence,” said Varmus, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature, before he switched to medical school. He doesn’t regret that it took him longer than many people to find out what he would like to do in life. “My life is full of things that happened to me as a student of English literature,” he said. “I don’t think we should be viewing an educational process to just one that should strictly determine your career prospects.” Dubochet expressed his view that narrow-mindedness and not pursuing interests outside research isn’t the way of the successful scientist. When choosing a graduate student or postdoc, Dubochet viewed their hobbies, such as being a theatre enthusiast, as a good sign.

Choose the Right Research Area

The second axiom presented by Varmus: choosing scientific questions that are interesting, long-range, technically feasible, and may even someday have some societal benefit. This was echoed by Dubochet in his lecture; he encouraged Young Scientists to “find a hot topic,” but to make sure it wasn’t too crowded a field. There should be room for new discoveries, as well as for making mistakes. “Making mistakes is normal! It should be the essence of research.”

Share Your Work

“The future of science is, I hope, open science,” said Dubochet, also stating that he would like to see data being shared among scientists in real time. This is parallel to Varmus’ fourth and fifth axioms: “Science is best practised as a team sport, not a solitary activity,” and “Make your work accessible to others, both to colleagues and the public, as soon and as freely as possible.”

Try to Give Something Back

Dubochet on a screen, Linke next to him on stage
Jaques Dubochet on screen with Council Member Heiner Linke on stage.

Both Nobel Laureates insisted that a love of science and a will to succeed is not enough to stand out. “Science depends on societal support: find a way to serve,” says axiom no. 7. Dubochet stressed the need for individual scientists to contribute to using knowledge for the greater good, and to fight for a cause, such as climate change. “You will be brilliant scientists, but also citizens,” he said. In his Nobel biography, Dubochet explained what his “4S” are: The first S stands for Self, “taking good care of oneself.” The second S  is for Social, living together (here, Dubochet writes that he teaches young migrants basic mathematics). The third S is Science, “because I love it.” The fourth S stands for Service.

It was evident that the Young Scientists responded genuinely to all this advice. “That’s what I like about Lindau,” said Varmus, “You always get a good round of applause!

Further Sessions in This Field

Hanna Kurlanda-Witek

Hanna Kurlanda-Witek is a science writer and environmental consultant, based in Warsaw, Poland. She has a PhD in geosciences from the University of Edinburgh, where she spent a lot of time in the lab. As someone familiar with both worlds of research and industry, she enjoys simplifying science communication across the divide.