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Science (and life) lessons from Nobel Laureates - Milena Bertolotti shares Insights from the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

 

“This is to certify that Milena Bertolotti qualified in a global competition among young scientists worldwide to participate in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to Physiology and Medicine”

Lindau 24 June – 29 June 2018, Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

With these words and the download of the certificate, available exactly one month after the concluding remarks of the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I suddenly realized that one of the most amazing experiences in my scientific life had truly come to an end, and that it was time to let the world know my impressions of it.

As a proud “Lindau Alumna”, this is part of my job now.

Picture 1 Flags_Copyright Milena Bertolotti

German, Swedish, European Union (host, organizer, and partner) and Lindau Meeting
Flags in front of the Inselhalle  meeting venue. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Milena Bertolotti

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, the annual gathering called “Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting” has taken place since 1951 and is the world’s most unique scientific conference. Hundreds of young scientists, selected among several thousands of applicants from all around the world (this year we were 600, coming from 84 different countries), are given the opportunity to meet, discuss and even to have lunch or walks with dozens of Nobel Prize winners (they were 39 in 2018).

The program and the futuristic meeting venue were clearly designed to foster exchanges. Briefly, every day there was the possibility to accomplish one or all of the three key goals of the conference:

  • educate = attending lectures about some of the most ground-breaking discoveries in physiology and medicine;
  • inspire = discussing more directly about different research-related themes of broad interest in the “Agora Talks” and “Open Exchange” sessions;
  • connect = meeting other young scientists and Nobel Laureates from breakfast to dinner, in casual spontaneous gatherings or more organized (however still informal and always characterized by a relaxed atmosphere) events, like the “Laureate Lunches” or the “Science Walks”.

Discussions, discussions and once again discussions…but what issues were we discussing?

From a strictly scientific point of view, recurrent topics were related to immunology and neuroscience. However, it was simply amazing to see how much cross-contamination was present throughout the different areas of specialization and to realize that basic research is already such an interdisciplinary domain itself that you can actually be awarded a Chemistry Nobel Prize for a fundamental discovery in biochemistry, biophysics or molecular biology. Exactly as it happens in the inspiring multidisciplinary FRIAS community I belong to at the University of Freiburg, you could find yourself learning about the development of nanovaccines or nanodrugs to fight cancer with a Greek nanomaterials scientist or solidarizing for the lack of research resources with a Palestinian neuropsychiatric doctor. No need to say how culturally enriching even these simple spontaneous conversations, rising from comments on the good/bad food quality or the length of the line for the buffet, can be.

Many Nobel Laureates mentioned that some of the most fascinating unsolved issues in science are related to the human brain, still so mysterious that we don’t even know why we do need something as basic as sleep, sleep deprivation being a major cause of brain damage. Understanding how a healthy brain works could also help in the fight against some diseases that are still inefficiently treated, like neurodegenerative diseases, said Sir John Walker, who won the 1997 Chemistry Nobel Prize for the elucidation of the mechanisms of the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). He also urged us young scientists to consider (and study to find solutions) other “grand challenges for humanity in the next future”, like the energy crisis and the problem of antimicrobial resistance.

The latter was also mentioned by Ada Yonath, who in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Prize in (again) Chemistry for her studies on the ribosomes. In one of the most appreciated lectures (even though she ran extendedly out of time), she clearly explained why ribosomes are good drug targets and stressed the importance of the development of new degradable environmental friendly antibiotics for the fight against microbial drug resistance. One of her talk’s slides even showed a cartoon of herself with a head “full of ribosomes”, having 3D protein structures instead of hair, as a visual representation of her ironic and humoristic attitude.

Together with other Alexander von Humboldt fellows attending the Lindau meeting, I had the opportunity to appreciate Ada Yonath’s humour once more at a private dinner with her and Nobel Laureate Bruce Beutler (he won the Prize in 2011 for his discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity). In fact, they were both Alexander von Humboldt Alumni and were invited to share their experiences with some of the current Alexander von Humboldt fellows. For me and my colleagues it was an absolute privilege, as was the fact of having a significant step of our academic career (the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt fellowship) in common with such great successful scientists.

Among the many new friendships and potential collaborations with promising young scientists born on the Lindau island, the connection with the other Alexander von Humboldt fellows was actually one of the strongest. Sharing the same hotel accommodation with some of them helped, and we often found ourselves hanging out together after the official programme of the meeting had ended.

We even shared the funny common experience of being stopped in the city centre by an old German couple on holiday, like it happens to famous people and like it was happening to every Nobel Laureate attending the meeting (obviously they were the superstars there!). The lovely old couple was not aware of what was going on in Lindau and curious to know who all those young people, going around with a grey lanyard with a badge, were. Being able to speak some basic German, thanks to the language courses sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, helped us with the explanations! 

 

Picture 2 Group_Copyright Milena Bertolotti

 Alexander von Humboldt Fellows dinner with Nobel Laureates  Bruce Beutler (third from left in the front row) and Ada Yonath (first from right in front). Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Milena Bertolotti

Picture 3 Group_Copyright Milena Bertolotti

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Humboldtians (from left to right): Rafael Freitas,
Svitlana Rozanova, Milena Bertolotti, Ngoc-Tung Tran. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Milena Bertolotti

The most frequently asked question at the conference was certainly the one concerning the magic formula for receiving a Nobel Prize.

All the Nobel Laureates agreed that obviously there was no standard recipe or special secrets, however “catching the right question” was the most important thing for everyone. According to Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1988 for the determination of 3D structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre), it was essential to “work on something considered very important, but thought to be impossible or very difficult”. Avram Hershko (2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation) added that one should not “go with the mainstream” and should instead “find an important subject that is not yet interesting to others, otherwise the big guys will get there before you!”

Both Michel and Hershko also emphasized the importance of serendipity, because sometimes accidental observations and unexpected results can lead to major discoveries.

Michael Levitt (2003 Chemistry Nobel Prize for development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems) claimed that ample research support, advanced equipment and fruitful collaborations can make the difference. He still had to admit that funding is clearly a major issue nowadays and making good science is getting more and more difficult, especially for young people. In his lecture, he showed some data according to which “40 is the new 20” in granting and hiring committees. As a consequence, more and more money goes to people over 55 years old, and less to the younger ones.

Another bad news for science comes from the “gold rush” to fund translational research projects, instead of basic ones, said Aaron Ciechanover (he shared the 2004 Chemistry Nobel Prize for the ubiquitin system discovery with his mentor Avram Hershko). He argued that “at the end there will be nothing to translate anymore!”

As far as techniques are concerned, Hartmut Michel and Harold Varmus (1989 Nobel for the discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes) agreed that cutting edge techniques and even the invention of a new technical approach to solve an important question were key factors to gain the major scientific award. Avram Hershko instead suggested to “use whatever experimental approach is needed for one’s objective, even though it is not the most fashionable/state-of-the-art technology!”

Personally I tend to agree more with this latter vision, even though it depends on the subject of investigation. In general, I found Avram Hershko a wonderful example of an enthusiastic, extremely smart but modest scientist, still so engaged with his research to perform experiments at the bench every day at the age of 81 and still having a lot of fun doing it! I was fortunate enough to personally talk to him during the Lindau Meeting pre-event Summer Festival of Science, hosted by the German Federal Minister for Education and research, Anja Karliczek. He was proudly wearing a tie decorated with ubiquitins and his eyes clearly lightened up with joy when we noticed it and congratulated him on this nice choice. He also underlined the importance of having a good mentor, because, as he also stated in a slide, “you cannot learn how to do good science just from reading the literature!”

 Picture 4 Avram Hershko_Copyright Milena Bertolotti

 Milena Bertolotti (left) with Nobel Laureate Avram Hershko (middle) and his granddaughter Maya (right).
Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Milena Bertolotti

During the meeting, numerous programme additions were organised, to which only a small group of young scientists were invited. The Summer Science Festival I mentioned before was one of these. I also had the opportunity to have lunch with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre (2003 Chemistry Nobel Prize for the discovery of water channels aquaporins), together with a small group of young scientists.

From his words, the main impression I got (in addition to the greatness of his scientific mind, but this was not new for me, having worked in the aquaporin field for some time back in Italy) was the one of a man holding dear to values like honesty, kindness, open-mindedness and curiosity in science, rather than fierce competition. He told us how he always tried to help the people who were working with him, especially when they had problems, and he pointed out how less motivated he was instead in hiring or helping people who were taking themselves too seriously. He made entertaining jokes all the time and highlighted many times how important it is to have a family energetically supporting you for your career. I will forever remember the grateful look in his eyes when saying this!  

Picture 5 Peter Agre_Copyright Milena Bertolotti

Milena Bertolotti with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre.
Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Milena Bertolotti

According to him (and in general to most Nobel Laureates as well), kindness and unpretentious hard work are the most rewarding attitudes, and one could really feel it had been a working philosophy in many cases…when asked about the characteristics to have in order to get a Nobel Prize, many of them spent some time trying to convince us that there was nothing special in what they did and that everyone could reach the same great goals when following that philosophy…this is really how a great intelligent mind thinks, never trying to show off to the detriment of the others!

To conclude, I would like to say that the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2018 has exceeded all my expectations. I feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to attend this meeting at this stage of my scientific career, when the postdoc phase is about to give way to a more independent one. In fact, this is a time in which one still needs a lot of advice and mentorship, but is already able to understand all the problems and important issues that characterize the charming but complicated world of life science research.

Potentially, there is so much more to tell, but space is limited and time (mine and of the readers) is precious. It is important to make good use of time and to constantly invest it in improving ourselves. In fact, as Aaron Ciechanover said, “perpetuating detrimental circles is deteriorating”, because “we can clone enzyme genes…but we cannot clone time”.

 

 

Milena Bertolotti, FRIAS Junior Fellow and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow

18/08/08