Chronicles of a Graduate Student Let Loose in Europe (Part 2)

Georgia Panagiotakos is a senior graduate student in the labs of Drs. Ricardo Dolmestch and Theo Palmer, where she studies mechanisms by which mutations in the voltage gated calcium channel CaV1.2 influence neurogenesis in the developing brain and contribute to the pathophysiology of autism spectrum disorders. The spring/summer Georgia attended two scientific conferences in Europe, and graciously volunteered to write a two-part blog post chronicling her experiences.

Ironically, I intended this blog post to be short and sweet. Now I’m staring back at what has amounted to a novella. Let’s move on from Greece to Germany then. The cortical development meeting (ed. note: Cortical Development: Neural Stem Cells to Neural Circuits). proved to be a source of new friends, as well as the birth of a new collaboration that would benefit my work. I returned to Stanford excited to get back to my science. A mere three weeks later found me on yet another plane (and decidedly more nervous) headed for Washington, DC - the first stop on the way to Lindau, Germany, a picturesque, tiny (read: if you are walking in any direction for longer thanten minutes without seeing water, you have been walking in circles) island in Lake Constance that was the site of the 61st Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates. I must admit my ignorance in saying that I had no idea there was an island in Germany prior tothis meeting. I should also take a moment here to thank one of my advisors for nominating me for this meeting. It was such an exceptional opportunity that I didn’t quite appreciate until I was actually living it. The truth of the matter is that there is relatively little that I can say to accurately convey the extent to which I enjoyed this week in Germany (I never imagined that Broca’s area would actually fail me at some point). I met new colleagues from all over the world that I envision running into at other meetings several years from now. I had dinner and lunch, respectively, with the co-discovers of one of the most fundamental techniques in use in neuroscience today, the patch clamp. I struck up relationships with other young scientists that I can see myself collaborating with for many years to come. And all this came from an email I received from my advisor some time last year that said “Hey, I’m thinking of nominating you for this thing. Would you go?”

In lieu of describing the details of this meeting, much of which was focused on science as a career path and the responsibilities we have as scientists, I’ve decided to stop my chatter here and leave you with the series of memorable quotes that I promised at the beginning. I hope you’ll find them as enjoyable as I did. You’ll see that they run the gamut from hilarious to inspirational.

I’ll start with Oliver Smithies (arguably the most adorable scientist that ever lived, the darling of the Lindau meeting, and the winner of the Prize for his work in gene targeting and homologous recombination). He was by far one of the favorites of everyone in attendance, largely because he continues to do science to this day, at the age of 86, and has managed to retain a child-like enthusiasm for science that I can only wish to maintain through grad school, let alone an entire scientific career:

  • “Because I still work at the bench, I am not the director of anything. I am still a child of science.. a grad student who never grew up.”- (this one I find especially meaningful in year four of graduate school)
  • “My thesis was based on a complete myth! And my paper.. never quoted. And no one ever used my method. And I never did again either!”
  • “What’s the point of it all? It doesn’t matter what you do for your PhD, as long as you are having fun. If you don’t enjoy it, ask your advisor to switch you to something else. If he won’t, switch advisors!”- (a personal favorite)
  • “So.. out of laziness, I invented gel electrophoresis. You may notice there are no photographs.. You see, my lab had no camera!”- Smithies flashed up a photograph of his old-school PCR machine, literally pieced together from parts of other machines tagged by the maintenance people with “NBGBGFO: No bloody good, but good for Oliver”.
  • “I’m still running gels.. and I’m still running them on Saturdays”.

Next up is Ada Yonath, winner of the Prize for her work on the structure of the ribosome. I attended her small discussion session and collected these pearls:

  • “For the young women concerned about doing science and having a family... my granddaughter said this about me: ‘I know she is a busy scientist, but she always makes time for me’ to her kindergarten class... right before I lectured them on ribosomes at the age of five.’”
  • “There are things in life much more difficult than science, put failures and successes into perspective.”
  • (on trying to disconnect yourself from the burden of being promoted) “It needs to change. Free yourself and think about science. Good science cannot happen when worrying about papers.”

For the readers of this blog, no introduction is needed for Erwin Neher, co-recipient ofthe Nobel Prize (with Bert Sakmann) for “their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells”. I had the opportunity to have dinner with Neher and lunch with Sakmann, where I learned that Neher loved running around the lab with his soldering iron making constant improvements to the rig. It sounds like not much has changed in terms of how electrophysiology is done over the years. One quote from Neher’s talk that served to put time invested into a project into perspective:

  • (on how long it took them to invent the patch clamp technique) “after a very tiny struggle.. just two to three years..”

Undeniably one of the most vocal personalities at this meeting, Sir Harold Kroto, winner of the Prize in chemistry for the discovery of C60, was not shy about expressing his opinions (as you’ll undoubtedly appreciate upon reading his quotes). An interesting fun fact, it turns out that Kroto acted in a play with Sir Ian McKellan in the fifth grade! That must have been some middle school. Below is a series of quotes from his plenary session and smaller discussion session:

  • “If you make people think they are thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”
  • “Enjoy your beauty whilst you may, for it will not last.. This is what I used to look like [flashes a picture of himself when he was younger]. A lot of you are young and beautiful, but eventually you will all be old and decrepit like me.”
  • “Find out the evidence for everything you accept.”
  • “Beware of too focused research strategies.”
  • Early in the day, at his plenary lecture, Kroto provided one of the most memorable moments of the meeting, unbuttoning his salmon colored shirt on stage and eliciting a collective gasp from the audience, until everyone saw a t-shirt he made underneath depicting Darwin’s phylogenetic tree of life (a wonderfully passive aggressive way of sticking it to everyone who continues to misunderstand evolution). “I got rid of all the bumper stickers on the way to Lindau,” he exclaimed.
  • “It’s true, my finding was useless. They told me, the Nobel Committee, that I might have to give it back [the prize].. but I already spent all the money!”
  • “Stupid educational systems think teachers can teach thirty students exactly the same way.. How many of you have brothers and sisters? Are you all the same? Of course not!”
  • “If you want to know how to give a powerpoint.. I mean how I give a powerpoint.. which of course is the best way to do it..”
  • (on what drives him to do good science) “You cannot do anything second rate!”
  • (on what might provide the solution to antibiotic resistance) “somebody who is doing something totally different may come up with the real solution to this problem..”
  • “Knowledge cannot guarantee good decisions - but common sense suggests that wisdom doesn’t come from ignorance.”
  • (possibly my absolute favorite quote from the entire meeting) “Humans - evolution has created an animal for whom rational analysis is not essential for survival.” Let’s see if developmental neuroscience can explain that one :)

Moving on, we come to Roger Tsien, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “his discovery and the development of green fluorescent protein”. He has since pioneered the development of many of the calcium imaging dyes widely used today. His plenary session was both informative and entertaining, and I have collected some of those more memorable quotes and stories here:

  • (on transitioning from GFP to dsRed) “I did it for the pretty videos - but GFP was never as pretty as a gorgeous red.”
  • (on having ChR2 sitting in his freezer while his graduate student toiled with trying to use ChR1 to depolarize cells) “Just because you are a Nobel Prize winner doesn’t mean you don’t have some humiliating failures. I boggled with guy’s attempt to get famous! Just because I am here and supposedly eminent doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes.”I should note here that Tsien was a really exceptional speaker and had a certain charm about him that I am not sure that I expected prior to hearing him speak.
  • (advice to young scientists) “Get regular exercise to outlive your scientific competitors.”
  • (more advice) “Look for a question that gives some internal sensual pleasure.. or at least puts your neuroses to constructive use.”

Avram Hershko, who received the Nobel Prize for his work on the ubiquitin system, delivered an excellent overview of the ubiquitin pathway in health and disease. He closed his plenary talk with lessons learned throughout his career and advice for young scientists that included:

  • find good mentors
  • find an important subject that is not yet interesting to others (“because the big guys will get there before you”)
  • some times great discoveries are made by accidental observation
  • use whatever approach is necessary for your work
  • never leave benchwork and your enthusiasm will stay high (he called it “a curiosity-driven adventure”)

There you have it. Overall, I have to say that what impressed me the most was how many of these laureates pursued questions simply because they were interesting to them and not because they would yield a “big result”. More impressive still is how many of them did not realize how seminal their work would turn out to be. I suppose this means that no matter how insignificant we think our science might be now (and I would argue it is easy to think this at various points throughout grad school), we might discover that other people will become interested later. So.. dream big I guess. How’s that for a positive note?