Do it for science – not for tenure: An Interview with Martin Chalfie

Originally published September 18th at http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2017/09/18/do-it-for-science-not-for-tenure/

 

Career advice from a Nobel Laureate

I recently had the pleasure of joining the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting at Lake Constance in the south of Germany. The weeklong meeting alternates its main focus between chemistry, physics, and medicine & physiology each year — the three categories of natural sciences the Nobel Prizes are awarded for. This year the focus was back on chemistry, and I was lucky enough to be invited by the organisers to cover the event on their blog.

Throughout the week I met handpicked junior researchers, talented fellow science communicators and journalists, and — above all — sat down with Nobel Laureates for one-on-one interviews.

One of them was Martin Chalfie, who won the 2008 prize in Chemistry with Osamu Shimomura and Roger Y. Tsien for their development of the now widely used Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) tag. Inserting the gene sequence for GFP into a host organism produces the protein within a cell, which allows for the visualization of intricate biological processes.

Chalfie talking to students at Lindau 2017

Preparation, trepidations, and doubts

I was worried about what to ask Chalfie — I’m  a neuroscientist by training, not a chemist — and my imposter syndrome was in full swing.

Two days before my interview was due to take place, though, Chalfie gave his lecture, and instead of jumping head-first into his science, he started by passionately advocating for pre-print archives for papers in biology. My ears perked up and I finally found my approach:  publishing, open access, and science policy are some of my favourite topics.

Nevertheless, when the time neared for my interview with Chalfie, I was nervous. There I was, about to interview a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, whilst having a rather basic understanding of chemistry myself, and merely five months into my professional science journalism career — what could possibly go wrong?

Conversing with a Nobel Laureate

The interview took place in an old theatre hall, and we sat down in the front row of the audience, one chair between us. And I couldn’t have asked for a better interview partner: he answered in anecdotes, offered insights, and talked genuinely and passionately about his work and outreach projects, gesturing emphatically whenever he wanted to stress a certain point.

We started out by talking about the pre-print archives for biological papers he’d mentioned and how important it is to put the focus back on content rather than the impact factors of journals — a message that was also officially supported and disseminated by several Nobel Laureates just days before the Lindau Meeting began.

To illustrate how skewed perspectives had become, he cited a visit to two different research institutes in Europe a few years ago. During each visit he was talking to the respective heads of the institutes, both of whom proudly proclaimed that “last year was a tremendous year for us. We published more papers in journals with high impact factors than we have ever done before.” Chalfie asked what their major findings were — neither of them could answer.

“To them, that number alone was an indication of quality,” Chalfie says. He condemns qualifying scientific work solely on the impact factor of the journals. “I would very much like that never to be done,” he says. “This idea that there is a place where you must publish in for it to be important I think is a little overblown.”

You gotta go for the science!

I wholeheartedly agree that the scientific obsession with the impact factor is ludicrous, but from my days as a research scientist I also know from experience how much value is placed on metrics; especially for younger researchers who are still trying to make a name for themselves.

So I asked Chalfie how scientists can bridge the gap between advancing their career in a system still heavily reliant on these metrics, and innovative research ideas that are not always recognized to be important enough for these journals.

“We put enormous pressure on young people” — everyone in research is worried whether they are “doing it right,” he says. Instead of worrying too much about publishing the right paper, Chalfie advocates for a little bravery among young scientists. Chalfie suggests putting the focus back on the research and to try to pursue topics they’re interested in. “It’s very hard to say: just do it. But just do it! Just try it!”

Chalfie emphasizes that forced networking and planning your career based on high-impact papers is not the point of research. “Important is what you have accomplished. Worrying about getting tenure is irrelevant.” He recommends to take opportunities whenever they are available, but not to frantically chase them. And above all, your heart has to be in it for the science. “That is the main message in all of this,” he says. “You gotta go for the science!”

Ok, so don’t worry about the impact factor or tenure — focus and work on your research project and life will work out? Is that how it was for him? “Yes, pretty much. And also for many other people I know.”

Chalfie's lecture during the 2017 Lindau meeting

Work/life balance as a Nobel Laureate

Finally, I asked Chalfie — who still runs his own lab at the age of 70 — about his work/life balance. He has a family, he plays the guitar, and he loves to read anything that is not related to science. But perhaps his most fulfilling project is a pro bono job he has taken on: “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine includes a committee on human rights, and about two-and-a-half years ago I became the chair of that Committee. We advocate on behalf of anyone who would be in those categories and whose human rights have been abused.”

These rights violations may or may not be related to science or engineering, and include violations of the right of freedom of speech, being subjected to unlawful trials, or being incarcerated without access to medical aid or proper legal representation. He stresses that host countries have previously agreed to support these rights, so now the committee is holding them accountable.

I asked him if this was his way of giving back to the community, and he cheerfully offers another anecdote. A friend once asked him “now that you have a Nobel Prize, what are you going to do with it?” To him, it is a point of honour to be active in the community and to give back. “If this gives me any greater visibility, if people will want to listen to me because the people in Sweden stamped my forehead with their seal of approval, then why shouldn’t I use this to help other people?”

In his opinion all the Laureates had to confront this idea one way or another. “I think many of us want to contribute in some way and I’m glad I get to do this.”

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