Published 30 June 2010 by Lou Woodley

Personalities, puns and pictures in the plenaries

We’ve all had bad experiences of sitting in lectures, trying to focus on the slides while feeling like we’re really missing out on the key points of the subject. You want to stay motivated and learn something new, but somehow the speaker doesn’t make it easy for you. How to encourage good science communication was something that came up in the panel discussion at Monday night’s social event. So how do Nobel Laureates make their talks entertaining and memorable? I’ll mention some highlights from Monday and Tuesday mornings’ plenaries, showing that scientists can be captivating, witty and even brave enough not to take themselves too seriously.

Last year’s winner Ada Yonath opened this year’s series of lectures with a talk entitled "The Amazing Ribosome". Recognising that her audience were not all structural biologists or even biochemists she started off with the basics of the Central Dogma (DNA makes RNA makes protein) illustrating this with pictures from a children’s book, quipping that the only inaccuracies were in the pictures of the ribosomes.

Whizzing enthusiastically onto the nub of her research into ribosomal structure and function, Yonath showed the two subunits of the bacterial ribosome –  the smaller of which she referred to as "the duck" and the larger as "the clown", instantly making them more memorable.

You can be a scientist and a loved family member. Please ladies, go into science, it’s a lot of fun

After talking about the catalytic activities of rRNA as well as the mechanisms of antibiotic action, Yonath finished with some more personal thoughts; the first was a photograph of a painting her grand-daughter had given her, proclaiming her as "the best grandma in the world" an accolade she has to re-earn every year.This prompted her declaration that "You can be a scientist and a loved family member. Please ladies, go into science, it’s a lot of fun". This she reinforced with a cartoon of herself where her trademark frizzy hair had been converted into a structural diagram of the ribosome, fixing her in all our minds. 

Highlights: unafraid to go back to basics to explain her subject to the audience, enthusiastic, very human, memorable anecdotes.


 What I cannot create, I do not understand

Tuesday morning opened with Roger Tsien presenting on "Designing molecules and nanoparticles to help see and treat disease". His entire talk was punctuated by references as to how and why he’d made certain decisions in his scientific career while successfully narrating the science of GFP and other fluorescent compounds that it has been comprised of. From admitting to "liking pretty colours" since he was a child, as well as being from a family of engineers, to describing an affinity with Feynman’s famous quote "What I cannot create, I do not understand", his explanations were lucid, often personal and derived from basic principles. Even his decision to move into more clinical applications of flurorescent imaging techniques has been prompted by the deaths of his father, nephew and PhD supervisor due to cancer.  This human angle was reasserted in his expressed dislike of being asked for a photograph or autograph "as if people thought he was a good luck charm and that some of his luck might rub off on them". He confessed to preferring to have a conversation with any interested students than being viewed as an idol.

However, it wasn’t all seriousness – he showed a humour in his awareness of the pressures and politics in science with statements such as "that was all well and good and it got me tenure, but I needed to do something that was more acceptable…". He also jested about naming the rainbow of fluorescent markers that his lab developed by using the colour scheme on the Crayola website.   

Tsien ended the talk with a helpful slide of key pieces of advice for the young scientists which included:

  • try to find important projects that give maximum payoff for minimum pain
  • learn to make lemonade from lemons i.e. persist
  • accept that your batting average (i.e. number of papers/key breakthroughs) will be low, but hopefully not zero.
  • Exercise is the best way to keep your brain healthy
  • Prizes are ultimately a matter of luck so avoid being motivated or impressed by them
  • Find the right collaborators and explioit them kindly for mutual benefit.


Highlights: clear explanations as to why he’d made certain career decisions, specific advice, humour in the face of challenges   

identify the victim, kill it, get rid of the body, destroy the evidence

Robert Horvitz‘s talk on "Programmed cell death and disease" was similarly lucid with the highlights for me being his creation of memorable ways to recall key facts, such as his summary of the key stages in apoptosis as comparable to a murder: "identify the victim, kill it, get rid of the body, destroy the evidence". He also brought the process of doing research alive by showing a fax of one of the "eureka!" moments when on February 12 1992 they realised that bcl-2 was the human homolgue of C.elegans ced-9,  an anti-cell death gene.

Highlights: witty ways of remembering processes, insight into what it’s like to do science

Tuesday morning’s plenary’s ended with a lively talk by Martin Chalfie on "Adventures in Nontranslational research". Chalfie’s sense of the adventure and enjoyment of scientific research clearly came through: he joked about having done all of his original key GFP experiments using microscopes that he’d borrowed from the manufacturers to "test them for a couple of months" and confessed to having done something similar recently, without admitting to what! He also illustrated some of the politics of publishing data, both in iterations of the title of his key Science paper where he was told to omit the word "new" because "everything in Science is new". He then showed a copy of a letter that his wife had sent to him, consenting to the use of unpublished data, but only on the condition that he make Saturday morning coffee, prepare a special French dinner and take the garbage out. Finally, Chalfie appealed for audience participation, enquiring as to how many biologists had used GFP during their studies (a majority) before finishing with a few bullet points of advice:

  • success may come via many routes
  • scientific progress is cumulative
  • students and post-docs are the lab innovators
  • basic research is essential
  • all life should be studied, not just model organisms 


Highlights: conveyed that doing science can be fun, specific advice, audience participation

All of these lectures (and others that I’ve not included here) were entertaining at the same time as being informative. Do share your thoughts about them in the comments if you were there or listened online.


*You might also be interested in Martin Fenner’s interview with Roger Tsien and Akshat Rathi’s view on the plenary lectures.

Lou Woodley