……to be a pioneering scientist?
Or, more simply put, what separates a truly outstanding scientist from a mediocre one?
Sure, there are clear ways to “quantify the contribution” of a scientist. There are ways to measure citations gathered, or the “impact” on a field, and its easy to identify the pioneers of science. But what made them different from the rest (and particularly the bad scientists)? There are a lot of scientists out there. Most of them are very smart. But only a few of them make the pioneering contributions (and it’s not necessarily the one with the highest IQ).
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fantastic scientists, and have met many more at conferences, or listened to their seminars. And though its easy to be blinded by their brilliance or overawed by their accomplishments, there seem to be traits common to most of them, a pattern even. These are just a few of my own observations, which I wanted to write down as a part of my own education.
Organization and memory: Its surprising how many people believe the common caricature of a scientist. Absent minded, confused, part-senile and mixing up incorrect solutions in test-tubes all paint a familiar picture of a “typical” scientist. That picture, surprisingly, is pretty distant from what the best scientists usually are. They may be in a world of their own, and forget the birthday of their spouses, but when it comes to their own research, they are invariably superbly organized, and more importantly have phenomenal memories. My PhD advisor had the ability to remember (what I thought were) obscure research papers from as far back as the 70s and 80s, where someone had suggested something, that was pertinent to my own work. During discussions, he would rock back, think for a moment, and then recall details about the authors, their findings and the implications of their work. And most of the best scientists know exactly what is going on in their labs, and what each person is doing, or should not be doing. There is just about no chance of them ever mixing two incorrect solutions and serendipitously discovering the ability to fly. Doddering old fools they are not.
Focus, passion and perseverance: It’s not surprising, but the best scientists are absolutely passionate about science, and are usually (mildly) obsessed with their research. They think about their work constantly, and it’s hardly surprising when they drop in to the lab on a Sunday, and having thought about some new ideas or possibilities, write you an email (or leave a note) with their suggestions, while you are out playing golf. And if they are out playing golf, it usually results in them coming back the next day with better ideas.
Looking for more: Call it greed if you will. But the best scientists do not appear to be satisfied with the findings that come out of their research groups. If a researcher in the group comes up with a set of findings that are in themselves solid and interesting, and contribute to the field, most scientists are happy to publish that work. But the best scientists always seem to look for more in every finding. If a story suggests something, they will want to find out more about it, and build on it until it is no longer a finding but a breakthrough in the field. Every result is usually accompanied by more, and more penetrating questions. Can this finding lead to something more? Will it have implications in more than the small problem it is addressing? Can something apply not just to heart disease, but cancer and diabetes as well? You get the idea.
A stubborn streak: More often than not, the best scientists come up with a hypothesis (usually based on some facts, and where they think it could lead), which they hold on to longer than most of their students or postdocs. They usually don’t want to let their pet “world changing” idea fall through before they have invested enough time and resources and thoroughly eliminated all reasonable possibilities. Usually, the people doing the grunt work (the students and postdocs) have to live with the frustrations, while the head scientist can sit back and speculate. But invariably, the stubborn streak pays off, with most of the pioneers getting their predictions right. And then they can nostalgically say how it was all hard work. Importantly, the best do not cling on to their ideas if the evidence conclusively shows that their hypothesis is not true, but they don’t accept defeat when presented only with “negative data” (where instead of disproving a theory you only can produce data that doesn’t fully answer the question). However, they usually demand solid proof before they declare their ideas to the world (in contrast to some “shooting star” scientists, who publish a blaze of high profile papers in a desire to rush through with their “findings” without being rigorous enough, often to be proven incorrect).
Vision: Understandably, the best scientists also have a vision. From their data, they make and state the appropriate conclusions, and can also predict where the finding may lead. There are a lot of good scientists out there who can interpret their data well, and come to solid conclusions. But only a few can make the leap from those conclusions to the greater implications the findings have for an entire scientific discipline. The best papers have a discussion where statements are made that prove to be prophetic. My favorite remains the understatement by Watson and Crick in their famous paper in Nature.
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
(Many of you have worked with (or are) outstanding scientists. Do share your thoughts and what you’ve learnt).