Passion is the key to success, says Jim Smith in his keynote speech at the London Naturejobs Career Expo in September 2014.
Contributor Simon Hazelwood-Smith
Jim Smith is a successful scientist by anyone’s measure. The UK scientist helped discover key growth factors required for the early development of embryos, and has received numerous awards for his scientific contributions. Smith now juggles three high-level roles at the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), National Institute of Medical Research and the soon-to-be-opened Francis Crick Institute in London with the running of his own lab at the MRC.
Like many people who have excelled in their field, Smith’s career has the illusion of being planned from the start. However he says this was not the case. He didn’t study biology until he was persuaded to take a cell biology class at the University of Cambridge while studying for a degree in natural sciences.
He fell so in love with the subject that he progressed to a PhD studentship with the famous development biologist Lewis Wolport. “You should allow yourself to fall in love with your subject, become engrossed by it,” Smith says. This passion is a key to success he stresses, because it drives you to put the necessary effort in. “There are times in your career when you know that working twice as hard will produce double the results, at these times you should work 3 or 4 times as hard,” Smith says.
Finding the ‘niche’ in science that you are most passionate about can be challenging. Some time spent in a lab following a first degree can help in focusing your interests. “It is a very good idea to get some experience between your undergraduate degree and starting a PhD,” says Smith. Alternatively, you could consider PhD programmes with a first year of rotations between different supervisors.
Some may say that Smith was lucky, particularly in his choice of subject; developmental biology was taking off when he began his career. This may be true, but his success likely has more to do with his ability to take and make the most of the opportunities he pursues. But over the years, Smith has built up a wide range of experiences within science: as a student, researcher, principle investigator and director. Drawing upon these experiences he gave the room a list of top tips for success in science.
Learn how to write. Good communication skills are vital in science, particularly when trying to publish. Smith’s advice is to practice and read promiscuously to improve.
Take good notes. “You should record everything in your lab notes, I don’t think it is possible to record too much information.” A good lab book will allow you to defend your work from scrutiny, and may highlight correlations in your data that would be otherwise lost.
Be your own biggest critic. “Never fool yourself” says Smith, make sure you are completely confident that your data supports your conclusions.
Say yes. Smith says that his “Constitutive response to when something turns up is yes”, you never know when a good opportunity might present itself.
Create and use networks. Astute networking can also help young scientists find their passion. “You never know when a connection, however small, may have an influence later in your career”. Collaboration in science is important for building relationships with other scientists and networking will make this much easier.
Take control of your early career. Smith says successful scientists need three key attributes, FBI: flexibility, bravery and imagination. They are often tied together earlier in one’s career and young scientists shouldn’t hesitate to take risks. “It is the easiest time in your life to move, and you will extend and diversify your knowledge and techniques,” Smith says.
Having risks pay off further drives Smith’s passion to work harder, he says. The feelings of a project paying off can be palpable. “I remember walking down the street, holding this piece of information closely, that I knew no one else knew”. The feeling of advancing the boundaries of human knowledge is part drives him and other scientist’s to continue pushing toward new frontiers.