Turning the Tables: Students take the high seat

Turning the Tables at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2010

The Nature Publishing Group (NPG) selected six talented young scientists to face five Nobel Laureates in a marvellous event that was very aptly named ‘Turning the Tables’. The aim of the event was to move the focus, for a short time, from the laureates to the students. It was the students who were to be asked questions by the laureates. The event was chaired by the witty Dr. Adam Rutherford of NPG and what followed was an hour of discussion so fascinating that all the people who heard about it declared how much they wish they could have come. Although this was a closed door discussion it was being tried out as a potential event for future meetings.
Students: Evans Boney (US), CarloAlberto Ratti (Italy), Benyam Kinde (US), Baybars Kulebi (Turkey), Inna Pertsovskaya (Russia), Paul Rupar (Canada)
Laureates: Prof. George Smoot, Prof. John Mather, Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, Prof. Ivar Giaever, Prof. Sir Harold Kroto

The meeting began with Prof. George Smoot who was so eager to ask a question to the students that he could not wait for Dr. Rutherford to introduce the panel. It was a soft starter question: “How has your Lindau experience been?” asked Smoot to all the students. We got a range of answers which were quite similar to the experience of the many students who have done video diaries over the week.

When Adam could finally begin he threw in a controversial comment: “In the week, we heard a laureate call graduate students ‘serfs’, what are your feelings about this?”. Of course, no one in the right mind would say ‘Yes, I’ve been treated as a serf’, especially when this event was being recorded and would be soon going on the Nature Videos website. And most students did deny it – except one, “I know I am serf and I am happy to be a labourer of science” he said perhaps waiting for his time of glory.

Adam then sparked even more interest: “This is your one chance to be able to give some advice to a laureate. What would you say to them?” The advice given by the students struck a chord with my experience as a graduate student. “Reply to all emails from students in 24 hours”, ”Pay attention towards building a relationship amongst labmates and not just with graduate students”, ”Encourage students to have a hobby or build one”, ”Use your contacts to help students”, ”Help us develop our voice and don’t squash it in a paper by leaking your personalities onto them”.
Despite Adam’s skill at keeping the attention on students, the laureates spoke at length when they got a chance and could not stop themselves from giving advice. Of course, old habits die hard: “Asian students are brilliant and hard working but my Chinese students try to please me. I do not want that – I don’t want to be pleased.”, ”Personalities leak in paper writing but is should not be about that. It should be only about results”.

Towards the end of the meeting a long debate raged about the role of scientists in politics and it was very interesting to see how the laureates responded. After they win their Nobels, they are catapulted to fame and become public figures overnight. They are burdened with a hidden responsibility of being able to ‘direct’ the future of science and society by using their genius. Being able to influence the government is one such responsibility and Sir Harold Kroto was quite happy to point out that “Things in the US are different than in the UK. We just lost a whole chunk of scientists in the government when the new coalition came to power.” But not just that he also said that “Few scientists get into politics because politics is dogma and science is not”. One laureate actually asked the students, “What is your definition of science? And if it is what I think it is then does anyone have the guts to get into politics?”

It left me with a feeling that the laureates were trying to find more excuses for why they do not play an active role in politics by asking students such questions. But the discussion also entered the realms of religion and Ivar Giaever commented that “In America, if you are not religious then you cannot get elected”. The only laureate who seemed less pessimistic of politics was John Mather when he said “I think scientists are very important in politics. It is possible (for them to get into it) but very difficult. We must consider this option seriously.” 

The discussion left me with a lot of food for thought and I had a long discussion with Kroto and some students at the end of it. I hope you guys are as excited as I am to see the article about the event that will be in a supplement to Nature in October.

Making Movies – an interview with the Nature film team

In 2008, 2009 and again this year, the Nature podcast and video team have attended the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meetings and produced several short films around them. I talked to Charlotte Stoddart who is the Director and Producer of the films, and Martin Freeth who works with the film crew every year as an Executive Producer and Director, about how they put together the films, as well as getting a sneak preview of the themes for the ones that we be recorded this year for the 60th anniversary celebrations.

The majority of the films that the team produce each year involve conversations between a young scientist and a Nobel Laureate but rather than being a formal interviewing of the Laureate, these discussions are intended to be lively, two-way conversations that reflect the shared interests of the two participants and hopefully show some exchanging of ideas.

The first step in preparing for these films is to email all the young scientists who will be attending that year and ask for anyone interested in taking part in a film to submit some thoughts on which Laureate they would most like to talk to and why. In parallel, Charlotte also looks at video clips of talks and interviews with Laureates, trying to see who might be most suitable for such an informal discussion, and whether they could be paired up with any of the requests made.

Typically, Charlotte receives about 50-60 applications from young scientists to take part and of these she calls up to 25 for a telephone interview to hear more about their ideas. From this selection process, the team come up with a shortlist of candidates whom they meet at Lindau right before the conference starts, to assess their suitability for the available Laureates who’ve agreed to be filmed, as well as how they are likely to perform in front of the camera. “We’re looking for people with confidence and some kind of charisma” says Martin. “When they talk about their project, it should come to life.”

The films include footage of a conversation with the young scientist before their meet their chosen Laureates, the discussion itself and then interviews with both the Laureate and the young scientist after the conversation has taken place to see how they both found it. The team also records footage of the Laureate’s lecture during the conference in case there are any sections relevant to their meeting with the student that can be edited in later.

A key factor that influences Martin’s organic appproach to how the filmed discussions between Laureates and young scientists are organised was the concern that “films around conferences can be boring” and that it is therefore much more important to pair young scientists and Laureates together correctly and then just “let them do their own thing” than create something that is very structured. “It’s all about the chemistry”, he explains; “you’ve got to find the right pairing.”  

In this way, the film team doesn’t have a set of pre-defined shots before the event, but spend the week of the meeting researching and then using suitable locations. “You can’t really tell until you’ve chosen the people, which locations might work” says Martin. The team try to find links between location and the interests of the students e.g. a talk on string theory by someone interested in the guitar might involve a short clip of them playing the instrument.There is also some experimenting with styles of conversation – should the participants be walking? sitting? inside or out?

After an intense week of recording, the team work over a couple of months to edit the footage into several short films. This is a “very rich and subtle process” that the team rely on Nick Curry to assist them with. It’s clear the team value the input of someone who was not actually involved in the filming: “You can be too close to a shot at a particular location because you sweated to get that shot, when even then it doesn’t actually work”. During the editing process, classic musical is typically added as a soundtrack to the footage and this has on occasion included asking musician friends to record a particular piece!

Once they have been completed, the films are released over several weeks at the end of the summer. Keep an eye out for this year’s footage which will include interviews with Jack Szostak and Tim Hunt as well as a specially commissioned extended film on “The Spirit of Lindau” to celebrate this year’s 60th anniversary of the meetings.

You might also be interested in Nature Physics Editor Ed Gerstner’s recollections of the filmed interview between Laureate Bill Phillips and PhD student Hannah Venzl.