Monday, January 22, 2007

What does it take…….

……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).


Anonymous said...

Excellent points. Some people also argue that serendipity (a better way of saying 'luck') and things like 'being at the right place and the right time' often plays a role. But these IMHO fall under the 'Vision' category. You have to have the vision to realize what the next big thing is and to understand the significance of a serendipitous result.

The Nobel winning Peter Agre, discovered water channels by 'accident' - he was trying to clone Rh factors and found some unknown proteins which he cloned and expressed in oocytes (leading to them bursting). Apparently he remembered a brief discussion he had few years back with a colleague at UNC, which helped him in identifying them as the elusive aquaporins !

A Motley Tunic said...

Apparently the Watson and Crick paper was only one page long! That is some concise writing.

CuriousCat said...

Nice post Sunil. I would like to add one more to your excellent list. Honesty. What I mean by that is to be able to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Some of the really great ideas have come out because the scientist in question was really looking and was not trying to fit what he/she saw to the existing world view, but rather was willing to see that it was the world view that needed to be modified. It takes exceptional intellectual honesty to do this, especially in physics

Anonymous said...

This made for enjoyable reading. But I agree with curiouscat when he says that honesty is an important characteristic of a great scientist - one who is concerned with the progress of science and not with publishing papers and points out mistakes in his own theory if he finds them. (And that might otherwise not be found for some time.)

Sunil said...

bongopondit......I completely agree with you that "serendipity" and "right place at the right time" happen more often to those who have the vision to see the implications of smaller, perhaps "uninteresting" but uncommon findings.

Sowmya......yes, it was a concise paper...but some of that brevity has become urban legend. The fact remains that both Science and Nature have very strict word limits, and letters to nature have to be 2 pages or less. But the Watson and Crick paper was beautifully written.....a hallmark of many of Crick's later papers as well (his proposal of the genetic code is superbly written).

Curious Cat, Anirudh.....intellectual honesty is of absolute importance, in ANY science. But usually, the best scientists are intellectually very honest with their science. There may be some scientists who are not, and who publish a stream of high profile papers, but they usually don't last very long and are found out sooner rather than later (if it's important there will be many people working on it. If they are, they try to repeat big findings, and if it doesn't repeat, then concerns arise). Which is why they are not considered "outstanding" or "great" scientists. They last only a few years. One hallmark of a great scientist is sustained productivity over many years.

CuriousCat said...

Hey Sunil, sorry but I did not quite make myself clear in my earlier comment. I posted a clarification, which may or may not help over at my blog. Take a look if you get the chance.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting thread. I have worked with some well-known scientists, but not with a truly great one, but I have read about several in that category. The points you state are, of course, quite true. But there were (and are, I am sure) scientists who had great creative abilities, but not all of the qualities you mentioned, like Alan Turing, Kurt Godel or John Nash. They seemed to conquer t he most profound problems and then do nothing at all until they conquered the next one.
I think that the qualities you have talked most about characterize people in the experimental (life in particular) sciences more accurately. Being one myself, I would say that factual memory and organization are more important in life science research than perhaps in mathematics and other theoretical sciences. However, never having worked with any outstanding mathematician, I do not have further insight.
A very interesting read is Ramon Cajal's (great neurobiologist) book called "Advice for a Young Investigator", published by MIT Press. Based on this I would suggest one more thing (though it is a general thread running through many of your observations as well): stability of mind and the courage to pursue ideas that the experts scoff at. Many a potentially great scientists have been lost to us because of the lack of the former and either lack or excess of the latter.

Sunil said...

anonymous......yes, perhaps this may hold more true for the experimental sciences (which I'm more familiar with). It's interesting that you bring up Cajal's book......I had heard about it from a friend some weeks back, and was thinking of buying it. The courage to pursue ideas is important, but it is also important to base that on solid observations, and be willing to look at your data with as little bias as possible. It's a hard, fine line.

Curious cat....i did go down to your blog to take a look. There's something in what you said.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with a few rather good scientists but it is difficult to find someone who has all the qualities that you have mentioned. I think one of the most important qualities that you may have not included is the way a true scientist can teach you science and scientific thinking.
that is so inspiring to their students/postdocs I had once worked with a really bright scientist with whom at the end of a discussion you felt like a different person-all geared up to affront the unknown. Sometimes I have had such feedback from technicians- I feel so happy on these days.

pippala leaf said...

Scientists are rare souls who are blessed with one pointed attention

Sunil said...

revathih.......yes indeed. I've always admired scientists who take time in mentoring their students and postdocs. I think that's a big part of a scientific "legacy", how successful their students are as independent scientists, and how much they have learnt or have been inspired by their mentors.

Madhu....not so sure about that :-)

Unknown said...

One interesting complement to this piece could be: what is it that characterizes the most creative period(s) in the lives of great scientists? Though each scientist arrives there differently, the most creative periods seem to have one single factor in common, overriding everything else: complete concentration on the problem at hand. Newton was famous for this ability (apparently, the Principia took less than 2 years to write and still remains the greatest single contribution to science ever), but closer to our time, Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who proved Fermat's last theorem, focused on that problem for ~10 years, publishing little or nothing else in the period. In the book by Cajal mentioned above (I am the same person, not that it matters), he also singles this fact out over everything else. However, an interesting observation is that, for the natural sciences, especially the complex (and less quantitative) ones like biology or economics, most interesting ideas seem to have come from chance observations (last year's Nobel prize for medicine for H. Pylori is a great example), probably because of the inherent complexity and diversity there. In general, the cognitive aspects of scientific discovery are very fascinating for people studying the brain: the quintessential self-referential quality of the brain or consciousness. It is tempting to speculate that consciousness is selfish evolutionary-struggle-for-existence taken to the extreme (strictly speculative).
An less related but interesting read: about the cognitive factors in medical diagnosis.

Sunil said...

aniket......."chance" has a lot more to it than just serendipity. The "chance" observations that led to something big were usually followed through by scientists with vision. The best scientists see and extract more from the same basic observation than others. I completely agree that cognition is a fascinating hard to study though.

Anonymous said...

From the age of 6, I've always wanted to become a scientist, that's why I've been studying at the medical university for 4 years now, so I've had the chance to meet every kind of scientists.

But I've never met my idol. I've always dreamt about scientists like Newton, Galilei... Maybe I'm a bit abnormal, but for me celebs are not J.Lo or Brad Pitt, but Hawking or Craig Venter.

I feel that I'll only find my icons abroad (maybe in the US). We'll see.

But this post is perfect, thank for sharing it with us!

Sunil said...'ll meet your idols some day, no reason to think otherwise.

Till then (and always) science, and learn.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I like the stubborn streak. It's painful, causes arguments, makes you work long hours ... but occasionally leads you to great discoveries.

Man we're just like drug addicts ...

Sunil said...


Sometimes though, the frustrations are immense. Like banging your head against a brick wall. But we still do it...hoping for the break.

Addiction. Pure addiction.

Anonymous said...

i think a lot of pioneering scientists are also asking big picture questions and are seeking ways to figure out fundamental questions. there is a different between doing good science on a small (though significant) problem and an essential one.

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