Life Lessons from Laureates


Later this week, on December 10 in Stockholm, three scientists will don their finest formal wear, shake hands with the King of Sweden, and accept the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  This is science’s annual version of the Academy Awards.  Even though it isn’t broadcast live around the world, you can watch a recorded video of this year’s ceremony afterward on the web.

Maybe you’ll want to let your imagination run wild and pretend you’re standing up there with them.

The Nobel Prize has always held a special mystique for me. (You, too?)  If there’s one ultimate symbol of professional success in a scientist’s career, it’s the Nobel Prize. 

While my career has not yet produced a Nobel Prize (and I’m not holding my breath), I’ve learned some valuable life lessons from those who have walked across the stage in Stockholm. Why did they become a chemist?  How did they pick their research topics?  What makes them tick?  Whenever I’ve explored these questions, I’ve come away with a perspective that’s helped me in my own career. 

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to interact with a number of Nobel Laureates.  Sometimes, I’ve simply been in the audience at one of their seminars or public lectures.  Once, I took a semester-long class from a Nobel Laureate.  And sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to talk to them one-on-one in my role as a science writer.

What did I learn from them? What pithy career advice can I pass along? 

One of my chemistry heroes over the years has been Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate.  He taught my quantum chemistry course in grad school, and I witnessed firsthand his enthusiasm for chemistry.  From him, I learned the importance of passion for a research subject, the value of using metaphors to relate chemistry to everyday life, and the nobility of devoting a life to teaching others.

I also discovered that, outside the lab and lecture hall, he was a musician, a Boston Red Sox fan, and a father.   

Today, I remember very little of the quantum chemistry he taught me, but I will never forget the twinkle in his eye when he told a story, the look of concentration on his face as he played his viola in a string quartet concert in the chemistry building, or the Red Sox ball cap he wore at the press conference on the day his Nobel Prize was announced. 

What do you know about the lives and careers of your scientific heroes and heroines?   A fascinating place to start, if they are a Nobel Laureate, is to read their autobiographies on the Nobel Prize website.

This week, in honor of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, take a break from thinking about chemistry and instead learn something about a chemist.  I guarantee you’ll gain some insight or inspiration that you can use in your own career.

To get you started exploring these Nobel autobiographies, here’s a link to Herschbach’s autobiography.

And here’s a trivia question for you, with the answer to be found on the Nobel Prize website: 

One of the 2008 Chemistry Laureates confesses that he chose his area of research (the green fluorescent protein), in part, because, “I love pretty colors.”  Who was it?

Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.  His blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan” (www.alchemist.pro), looks at the intersection of science, parenting, and daily life.

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3 Responses to Life Lessons from Laureates

  1. I too am a scientist with a fascination with the Nobel Prize. I wrote an article about my trip to Stockholm a couple years ago with a Nobel inspired theme. http://www.intltravelnews.com/2006/10/imagining-a-nobel-experience-in-stockholm/

  2. [...] the value of these individuals as role models and heroes for those of us involved in science. (See “Life Lessons from Laureates “ at the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Careers” blog.)  Over my years as a [...]

  3. chemist says:

    Me, I would be happy for a JOB in my field (PhD organic chemist) or even one at a university.

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