Monday, July 29, 2013

Advice for scientists from a Nobel Prize winner

The UAB School of Medicine recently played host to its leading regional forum, the Spring Immunology Symposium. Proof of the event's growing influence can be seen in  this year's keynote, Nobel Prize Laureate Rolf Zinkernagel, M.D., Ph.D., Professor in the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich. Dr. Zinkernagel won in his Nobel prize in 1996 for discoveries that helped to explain how the human immune system recognizes that one of its cells has been infected by a virus.

Included here is a brief video of Dr. Zinkernagel talking about his life's work, what young scientists should be thinking about and frontiers in immunology.

Dr. Rolf Zinkernagel, UAB Immunology Symposium, June 2013 from UAB School of Medicine on Vimeo.

Below is a summary of the video discussion in a Q&A format.

Q1. What should young people keep in mind who want to get into science and immunology?
  • Success requires a scientist to be prepared for a ratio of 1 percent success to 99 percent failure and that a researcher perservere. 
  • Young scientists should be prepared to work long hours because "the harder you work the luckier you get,"  
  • It is important to find a research subject that you feel is extremely important and one where you burn to know the answer.  
Q2. What were the key decisions that led you to success in your field?
  • Among Dr. Zinkernagel's important early decisions as a scientist was to first become a medical doctor. It enabled him to learn study a complex bodily system, the immune system, in its entirety as a foundation. 
  • Dr. Zinkernagel started as a surgeon, but then got interested in immunology because of the immune rejections seen with transplanted organs. His focus remained on infectious disease from there on out, and not entirely by design.
Q3. What are your thoughts about how science differs around the word (e.g. in the U.S. versus Europe)?
  • The United States, and the UK as well, treat research like a sport in some ways, with a spirit of "fierce, competitive openness" that gives new researchers an opportunity to show what they can do, and with relatively few restrictions. Of his native Switzerland, Dr. Zinkernagel said it has a good research environment, but its small size limits opportunities when compared to larger nations. 
  • He also lauded the opportunistic outlook of the average American. That becomes important as researchers face seemingly unsolvable science problems, but just keep trying. 
Q4. What will the future of immunology look like?
  • The next few years will see scientists gain a more and more detailed understanding of the processes and pathways involved in the immune system. He said that the field may go so deep that it identities a set of uniform processes because, at the root of everything, cells are cells despite their different functions.  
  • That said, how cells and organs interact, the province of systems biology, still has a long way to go before researchers understand the sum of complex interactions that result in health or disease.
  • In addition, immunology is a relatively "soft" science compared to physics, said Dr. Zinkernagel. There are yet many unknowns and presumptions that persist despite a lack of evidence to back them up, and many will turn out to be wrong. In that light, those involved in teaching the next generation of immunologists should take care to instill a combination of open-mindedness and critical thinking in their students.   
For a look back, here is another video created by after Dr. Zinkernagel won his award.

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