The first of a three-part series on the mentoring experiences from Nobel Laureates.
Contributor Michael Gatchell
One group of people that have experienced the greatest thrills science has to offer has to be the Nobel laureates.
Science is about discovering and understanding the unknown. To do this you need an open mind and follow paths that no one else has walked down before. The classes you take as a student and books you read provide the basic knowledge, but it is the interactions with people around you that mold you into a true scientist — ready to take on the greatest problems that nature has in store.
Every Laureate has a unique story of making choices along a nonlinear career path. But as any of them will tell you, it is important to have an ensemble of mentors that you trust for advice at any point along the way, not only when you are young and inexperienced. “You cannot learn science from books — you have to learn science from other people, who give you the right imprint,” says Carlo Rubbia, 1984 Nobel Laureate in physics.
Regardless of their field, all laureates emphasize the same thing as the single most important trait of a good mentor: teaching how to be an independent researcher that dares to move into uncharted waters. It is this original thinking that has allowed laureates to do groundbreaking research resulting in a Nobel Prize. “You should never go where all of the other people go,” says Rubbia, “if you find yourself in a very large community, then you will always find somebody else there who is much smarter than you. And the chances you have to produce something significant is very small.”
The strive to teach independence to young scientists is seemingly in conflict with an increased need of mentorship in today’s world. Now young scientists are more dependent on guidance than those who came before them, but they are not needier by nature. Instead the laureates see this as a natural result of large number of young people on short-term contracts competing for a decreasing pool of permanent positions. This insecurity means that talented minds find themselves lost in a flurry of applications and in a greater need of advice.
Another cause for the increased need of mentorship from young scientists is the shift in the size of problems being studied. In most fields, the time when major discoveries could be made by a single person overnight has passed. Now much of the research is performed by large collaborations over long timescales. This is particularly true in physics, where large projects can span over decades and involve countless PhD students and postdocs. It has simply become more difficult for an individual to grasp an entire topic.
In the two following posts I will share mentoring insights from Nobel Laureates that I met that the Lindau Nobel meeting earlier this year. Their advice is timely and useful for anyone looking for a mentor or a mentee.
More from the series: