How to Win a Nobel Prize

BY ELEANOR WANG | SQ ONLINE WRITER | SQ ONLINE (2018-19)

 

Stockholm, Sweden in December. (Photo by Ola Ericson)

Picture yourself traveling to Stockholm, Sweden in December for a brief but life-changing trip: On December 10, 20XX you sit in Stockholm Concert Hall amongst some of the world’s most renowned scientists, listening to Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, the Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, give a phenomenal opening address. Later in the ceremony, the King of Sweden presents you with the Nobel Prize. Two months prior, you had received a phone call in the wee hours of dawn informing you of your Nobel Laureate status.

 

Now, how do you make this dream a reality?

As a brief overview and history of the Nobel Prize, it was first introduced in 1901 by Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel. Nobel became fabulously rich after inventing dynamite and bequeathed about $260 million to create international “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” These prizes were originally awarded for five categories: Peace, Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature. Economics was added as a sixth category in 1969. Nobel Laureates win roughly $1 million (split evenly if the award is given to multiple recipients) and the ultimate, eternal bragging rights.

 

Nominator criteria for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine as listed by the Nobel Assembly. (source)

How does the Nobel Foundation pick its winners? The specific criteria and selection process are actually rather mysterious. There’s no “checklist” besides (1) having someone nominate you (you’re not allowed to nominate yourself), (2) being alive (the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously), and (3) doing something incredible for humanity. Actually, the criteria to be a nominator (shown to the right) are more stringent than the criteria to be a nominee—the aspiring nominee primarily faces the challenge of gaining recognition and approval from an eligible nominator. Invitations to nominate are personally sent to about 3,000 qualified individuals. After nominations are complete, the Nobel Committee, usually consisting of Swedish professors in the appropriate field, will then invite experts across the world to write evaluation reports on the nominees and their work. The Nobel Committee assesses these reports and sends recommendations to the Nobel Assembly (50 professors at Karolinska Institutet) for further discussion, after which the Nobel Laureate is finally chosen and announced. Surprisingly enough, however, the most important rule for winning a Nobel Prize is to not aim for a Nobel Prize.

A simplified timeline for the Nobel Prize nomination and selection process. (source)

 

So how do you win a Nobel Prize? The Nobel is supposed to go to people that have made contributions that were highly beneficial to mankind, but groundbreaking, life-saving discoveries can’t necessarily be anticipated. If they were, they would be much more common (and the world might be a much nicer place). Even after the discoveries have been made, it’s hard to predict what the Nobel Committee/Assembly will see as outstanding. During September, before the Prize is announced in October, the media is always trying to predict who the next winners are. Nominations don’t get announced, so the public doesn’t even know who the candidates are. Actually, information about the nomination and selection process for an individual year is restricted for 50 years.

A microscopic view of brain cells generated from induced pluripotent stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Su-Chun Zhang. (Courtesy: Su-Chun Zhang/Baoyang Hu, UW-Madison) (source)

The predictions are based on number of factors, including the number of times a scientist’s work has been cited and the kinds of awards they’ve recently won, but the media usually has a hard time identifying the actual winner. For instance, year after year (2014 – 2018) the public predicts that CRISPR is going to win the Nobel Prize—reasonably so, considering the impact it’s made on science and medicine. For many, it isn’t a question of if CRISPR will win, it’s when. It’s won plenty of other high profile awards, but not the Nobel. Later in the article I’ll elaborate on why, but essentially, the “idea that there is a recipe for winning a Nobel Prize is, of course, preposterous,” according to Elizabeth Pain in her article about lessons from the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012 with Sir John B. Gurdon “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent” (induced pluripotent stem cells [iPSCs]), stated that a “researcher’s ‘best chance’ to win a Nobel Prize lies in ‘unexpected results’ that are often overlooked or ignored.”

As another reminder, the Nobel Prize is awarded for contributions highly beneficial to mankind. So the first step is to ask questions—good questions—about important aspects of the world that are not yet well understood. In turn, the supposed answer to these questions should enable the betterment of the world. In following the scientific method, we design experiments to make discoveries, generate hypotheses, make objective observations and conclusions based on data, and we assess the credibility of our experiments through many trials. The vast majority of the time, our hypothesis is partially wrong or completely wrong. We often get bamboozled by completely unexpected results. Our experiments fail, both the long and arduous ones and the seemingly short and simple ones. We struggle, but we strive to find answers and to make meaningful discoveries. Understanding the purpose of a project is essential. When we lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish and become fixated on obtaining external validation, we forget the purpose of science—discovery.

There’s no way of predicting whether one finding will be big or small, revolutionary or insignificant. This is what our experiments are supposed to tell us and where our questions should guide us. For instance, following curiosity about the origins of human health and disease can bring us to a deeper understanding about how our bodies function, subsequently informing the development of new treatments to prevent our bodies from malfunctioning. Shinya Yamanaka, mentioned earlier, began his career as a surgeon at Osaka National Hospital in Japan. At 26, Yamanaka was driven by his father’s death to pursue a career in science rather than medicine. His vision was “to help patients by developing cures for diseases as a scientist.” Yamanaka says:

“As a scientist we don’t want to repeat what other people are doing, we want to be as unique as possible. But in reality thinking something very unique is getting more and more difficult. Now I can see any failure as a chance. That result will teach you something else, something new.”

Everyone from Nobel Laureates to cheesy motivational speakers reminds us that we need to be willing to fail. A certain amount of flexibility is key: we should be able to look at data objectively, especially when it goes against what we initially believed. When we pour our blood, sweat and tears into a project it’s easy to become attached; however, in the pursuit of truth, the willingness to adapt and move forward after our beliefs are challenged is vital. In addition to adaptability, moving forward in science requires quite a bit of hard work and dedication. As someone who spends many long hours in the lab (even though these hours pale in comparison to the years that my mentors have dedicated to research), I can confidently say that good science asks a lot of us, but when we put in the time and effort it slowly but surely pays off. Some of our work involves countless hours of pipetting or continual late nights watching over cell cultures. The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine involved repeatedly counting 959 cells in a worm.

C. elegans. Photo credit: Justin Chaplin. (source)

In the 1950s a scientist named Sydney Brenner began studying a small roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans. Today it has become a major model organism for neuroscience, genetics, and developmental biology, but at the time, C. elegans generated a lot of skepticism. Moving forward to the 1970s and 1980s, H. Robert Horvitz and John E. Sulston, two postdocs working with Brenner, spent their time counting the cells of C. elegans to map its development—the cells were counted but the hours were countless—and found that the number of cells “increases from about 550 in the newly hatched larva to about 810 in the mature hermaphrodite and to about 970 in the mature male”. What do these numbers mean, and why do they matter? Actually, through all the counting and the mapping, Horvitz and Sulston found that many of these cells followed asymmetric cell division patterns, and in 2002, Horvitz, Sulston, and Brenner won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.” Working together, they uncovered the genetic basis behind apoptosis, one of the most important biological processes in the development of all multicellular organisms.

If anything, science has only become more collaborative in the years since Brenner, Horvitz, and Sulston won their Nobel Prize. We really can’t do anything on our own, and if we think that we’re completely independent, we’re wrong. We learn by reading about other people’s experiments. We are trained by mentors who pass on their knowledge and experience to us. Working in a lab involves a lot of coordination and teamwork. Almost every major research paper you find will have about five or more authors, sometimes coming from different labs that specialize in different subfields. But the Nobel Prize is only awarded to a maximum of three people—how can this be?

Science operates much better with combined knowledge, feedback, mutual support, and growth. Most major scientific discoveries involve the work of far more than just three people. Bringing it back to CRISPR: the public keeps claiming that it should win the Nobel Prize, and typically attribute credit to Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang. But there are actually a multitude of scientists who have made major contributions to characterizing CRISPR biology and repurposing it as a technology. Do we award the people who first discovered it? (That would be Spanish scientist Francisco Mojica, or two other groups from different countries who made the same discovery in 1993). Do we award the people who characterized the mechanism by which it operates? What about the ones who turned it into a genome-editing tool? The ones who hold the most patents on CRISPR-based tools? Have the most papers and are the most cited? Are most well-known by the public? Perhaps deciding who the winners should be depends on why CRISPR is being awarded the Nobel in the first place. What makes CRISPR so important and who did the most work pushing it in that direction?

(left) X-ray crystallography image of DNA. (right) Dr. Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) (source)

Regardless, many of the scientists who made significant contributions to CRISPR are not going to get credit if only three people are chosen, but they won’t be the first to get left out. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine of 1962 was awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins for discovering the structure of DNA. However, our unsung hero Rosalind Franklin, who made the biggest contribution by providing the X-ray crystallography image of DNA that enabled the discovery, was never credited. She passed away in 1958, and the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously, but modern day biology textbooks often still leave her name out when attributing credit for the discovery of DNA structure.

As amazing as the Nobel Prize is, clearly there are still issues. The lack of group awards acknowledging more than just three scientists causes problems and gives a “misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done,” according to astrophysicist Martin Rees in a discussion about the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. While prizes are nice and scientific discoveries should be honored and recognized for their importance, the manner by which the Nobel Prize is awarded often distorts the nature of science, rewrites its history, and overlooks many important contributors. Rosalind Franklin is not the first, nor the last person to be left out. Ed Yong’s article, “The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science” details many instances where important contributors to big discoveries were excluded from their rightful Nobel Laureate status. Nowadays, solo breakthroughs are incredibly rare and the most important discoveries involve many people spanning multiple research groups. This calls upon the public to realize that people who win big prizes are great scientists, but not all great scientists get recognition for the phenomenal work that they do.

Winning the Nobel Prize is a great aspiration, but only if you have the right intentions: making discoveries that confer a significant benefit to mankind. To achieve this, we should set our sights on doing good science, rather than winning awards. As illustrated by many awe-inspiring, curiosity-driven, hard-working, and collaborative scientists before us, the true reward comes from knowing that your work is helping others; the prize is the icing on top of the cake.

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