Published 13 July 2010 by Akshat Rathi

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.

Akshat Rathi

Akshat Rathi is a reporter for Quartz ( in London. He has previously worked at The Economist and The Conversation. His writing has appeared in Nature, The Guardian and The Hindu. He has a PhD in chemistry from Oxford University and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.